July 19, 2022 By Carol Britton Meyer
There's good news for town officials and citizens who feel that remote meetings are more accessible to the public and would like that format to continue.
The ability for local governments -- including Hingham's boards, commissions, and committees -- to continue holding remote meetings through March 31, 2023 was approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker's office just ahead of the July 15 expiration of an earlier extension of COVID-related accommodations.
This provision allows for remote access to meetings through various video-conferencing, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and webinars.
Remote access using these platforms under the current extension fulfills the requirements of the state's Open Meeting Law.
Select Board Chair William Ramsey shared his thoughts about the extension. "The ability to meet remotely has been beneficial to our town volunteers, citizens participating in meetings, and our constituents," he said. "Many people have told me how much they appreciate the ability to be home with their families while still having the ability to participate in a meeting through Zoom."
Having the option to continue the current practice also helps to keep meeting participants safe should an uptick in COVID occur, enables a meeting to go forward during inclement weather, or allows a board member to participate if he or she is traveling for work, Ramsey explained.
"As we’ve been doing the past few months, the Select Board will utilize both in-person and Zoom meeting options," he said.
According to the ACLU Massachusetts website, the ACLU, along with other advocates of extending the remote meeting option —Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, New England First Amendment Coalition, and New England Newspaper & Press Association -- released a joint statement in response to the granting of the March 31, 2023 extension.
While pleased that remote access to, and participation in, public meetings remains an option through March, this group of advocates expressed disappointment that the Massachusetts legislature could not agree on permanent reforms at this time.
"Lawmakers must prioritize this issue at the start of the next session. Massachusetts can’t afford to shut the door on members of the community who have too often been left out of our political process. Providing Bay Staters with the option to remotely participate in public meetings makes the democratic process more accessible for people with disabilities, those who may not have access to reliable transportation, have caretaking responsibilities, or are unable to take a leave of absence from work, among other daily challenges. We must not return to an inequitable past as the Commonwealth moves forward," the statement reads in part.
The goal of the ACLU and the other groups is to permanently update the Open Meeting Law to require a hybrid meeting format so that members of the public can access and participate in public meetings remotely in addition to the in-person option.