October 19, 2021

Meetings go online in response to virus

Municipal meetings ain’t what they used to be, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo relaxed New York’s Open Meeting Law in response to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic.

The result: More local boards are videoconferencing their meetings, while others are canceling them until they can resume business as usual.

Cuomo’s directive is a temporary tweak to the law, requiring that public bodies, such as municipal boards, enable remotely viewable meetings by “conference call or similar service, provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”

The town of Dryden did this last Thursday, having its regularly scheduled board meeting using a video conferencing app called Zoom. Other than town Supervisor Jason Leifer’s voice being weirdly distorted, the routine meeting went smoothly and was attended virtually by a few members of the public in addition to board meetings and town staff. The Cortland planning commission did the same Monday night, and the Homer Village Board will do the same at 6 p.m. today.

“I think this is going to be a trend for the future,” said Joe McMahon, Cortland’s planning commission chairman.

A crucial requirement of the new state directive: The public must be notified of how to access the videoconference, said Kristen O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government.

“I would advise them that they should make the access information available to the public,” O’Neill said.

Just telling the public that a certain meeting will be video conferenced is not enough: “The public audience needs direction on how to do that,” she said.

But some officials object to online meetings, such as Jim Reeners, vice chairman of the city planning commission. Reeners refused to attend Monday night’s meeting, saying he did not think the board was providing the public proper access. Reeners was the only board member who did not attend.

“I’m not participating because I don’t believe the meeting can be held in the manner that we are supposed to hold them,” he said.

Reeners said he didn’t think the public had adequate notice of the meeting, and he also does not think video conferencing is a substitute for meeting in person. He said he tried, but failed, to have the meeting canceled.

Cancellation is the route that one municipality — Cortlandville — has decided to take for the next few weeks, said town Supervisor Tom Williams. Williams said he was not confident that videoconferencing would make town meetings accessible to everyone who wanted access. In line with that view, Cortlandville officials decided to cancel the March 31 planning board meeting as well as the April 1 town board meeting.

The next Cortlandville town board meeting is scheduled for April 15, but that could change if the state stay-at-home order persists, Williams said.