For those who hoped never to hear the phrase “new normal” again… we’re not there yet.
Yes, we are getting back to a “new normal” as the pandemic continues on. And while the pandemic is not over, many in-person activities have resumed. For municipalities, that means hosting in-person meetings once again.
New York Open Meetings Law
Governing these physical meetings is a piece of legislation that covers public bodies such as municipalities. Known as the New York Open Meetings Law, or OML, Section 103 of the Public Officer’s Law states that public bodies at the state and local level in New York must give notice of meetings and allow the general public to attend at a facility that permits barrier-free physical access.
According to Section 102 of the OML, public bodies are defined as any entity that requires a quorum to “conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof.” Therefore, a public body is any state, county, or municipal government. And a quorum means a majority of body members needed to take formal action of matters of public business.
Essentially, the OML gives citizens the right to attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy in an open and public manner, enabling them to educate themselves on current legislation and observe the performance of public officials.
New York State Response to COVID-19 and the OML
On March 13, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.1. The order suspended the requirement that members of a public body physically convene, and teleconferencing was permitted. Therefore, instead of providing a meeting location where the public could gather, if a municipality wanted to host a meeting, the Executive Order still mandated that municipality had to provide remote access to the general public.
In addition to suspending certain requirements such as an in-person, physical location, some new requirements were also established for the duration of the Executive Order 202.1 such as recording and transcribing meetings.
OML Fully Functioning Again
Now that Governor Cuomo’s Executive Orders 202.1 regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and Public Officers Law have not been renewed, the aspects of the OML related to in-person attendance that were previously suspended are back in effect. And, while state and municipal governments had to previously shift their meetings virtually due to the pandemic, now, many municipalities might find the shift back to in-person meetings startling.
When the Executive Order was first signed, it was a challenge for many municipal and state boards to gain familiarity with platforms like Zoom. However, many members of the general public attending the meetings virtually quickly became accustomed to the ability to watch and participate in municipal meetings from the comfort of their own home. As more municipalities and the public became used to hosting and attending virtual meetings, it quickly became commonplace and convenient. The many positive outcomes of these meetings included that people who had never participated in the municipal process in the past were able to watch, listen and comment – estimates suggesting that public engagement actually increased during an otherwise dark time.
With in-person meetings on the rise again, state and local governments need to keep the momentum of public engagement going, especially since the OML makes it clear that the public needs to be allowed to attend meetings. Unless elected officials would like to open their homes up for the public to attend meetings, under the OML, meetings need to be tied to some kind of physical location where the public can gather. Post-pandemic meetings could look anything like larger facilities to allow for more socially distant gatherings or creating hybrid style meetings.
What Would a Hybrid Style Look Like?
If a municipality were to host a board meeting implementing a hybrid style model, then the meeting could be held in the usual physical meeting spot. Fitting into the confines of the OML, the board or municipal body would be live in the usual meeting place, allowing the public access to either the physical facility or the option to participate virtually. This way, public engagement could be maximized to its full potential as the post-pandemic Executive Order days are still young.
A hybrid style could also address the matter of accessibility and inclusivity. People that don’t have cars or access to transportation could continue to attend virtual meetings and stay in the loop. After all, communities work best when the people living in them and the people leading them work together. Therefore, hybrid-style meetings are a solution to improve outreach, participation, and inclusivity. While the pandemic disrupted most of our lives, municipalities should capitalize on the opportunity to collaborate with the public and find more ways to include everyone as in-person meetings start to resume.
Questions on how to navigate the Open Meetings Law now that the pandemic Executive Orders have not been renewed? Contact us at 631-738-9100.