On September 1st, during a special legislative session called by Governor Hochul, New York State legislators passed a bill that allows public officials to hold in-person meetings without allowing public attendance, limiting the public's access to remote or "virtual" means only.
Journalists and citizen groups have complained that remote-only access severely limits their ability to question and interact with officials. At the same time, there are many citizens who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attend meetings in person, and whose only means of observing and participating is by remote access.
Several citizen activist groups, including the NY Coalition For Open Government (of which I am a member), have called for changes to the state's Open Meetings Law which would require official public bodies and agencies to conduct "hybrid" meetings, combining both in-person and remote live stream access.
In recent months, due to public health restrictions, many public agencies, including public housing authorities, conducted meetings by remote means only. In the absence of live streaming, remote access can be done simply, but effectively, by telephone, as it was by the Lockport Housing Authority. The authority eliminated that access when it resumed in-person board meetings.
Most LHA residents live at sites distant from the authority's headquarters, where those monthly meetings are held. Attending a meeting in person can pose difficulties or insurmountable obstacles for many residents. Many are elderly, infirm, or disabled. Many do not have their own means of transportation. For some, even should they have the means to do so, sitting through an in-person meeting lasting an hour or longer can be a physical challenge.
Minutes of a meeting, posted on the authority's website weeks after the meeting, provide only a bare outline of issues discussed, deliberated, and voted upon.
Remote access to meetings allows residents unable to attend in person to observe the structure and procedures of the board, to be more fully informed on issues directly affecting their living and housing situations, and to contribute their own input on such matters. It allows them to experience, first hand and in real time, how their concerns are addressed by those appointed to the board by the city, and those elected to the board by the residents themselves.
There are practical reasons why that knowledge and their own participation are important to residents, not least of all matters pertaining to their own safety and security. A recent raid by law enforcement agents at an LHA property, resulting in the arrest of a resident on charges of drug distribution and unlawful firearms possession, illustrates the point. Other, more common but ongoing problems — trespassing, unauthorized occupancy, resident conflicts, and others — underscore the value to residents of observing how those and more benign matters are dealt with by housing authority leadership.
Given the ubiquitous role that online technology now plays in both personal and official communications, it is time for legislators to revisit the state's Open Meetings Law, with an eye toward providing the fullest and least encumbered access to official public meetings. In-person meetings are essential to informed citizenship and democracy. They should not be suspended or closed to the public except under the most compelling circumstances. Remote access is not and should not become a substitute for the public's ability to attend official meetings in person. It can and should be used to broaden the public's access and participation.
Meanwhile, local councils, committees and boards, including public housing authorities, can increase their own inclusiveness and transparency by providing some form of remote access along with in-person meetings. There is no reason not to make official public meetings as open to the public as possible.
Richard Bertrand resides in Lockport. Contact him at email@example.com.