Good-government organizations, press groups and advocates for people with disabilities in New York on Thursday called for a public hearing on the state's open meetings law after state legislators and Gov. Kathy Hochul agreed to allow government bodies to meet remotely until Jan. 15.
Local and state government entities will be required to provide electronic access to meetings for the public, and the measure was approved as the more contagious delta variant has led to a spike in hospitalizations. A since-expired state of emergency had allowed government bodies to meet remotely during the pandemic.
"Let's be clear—the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I've heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually," Hochul said after signing the measure into law. "This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers' access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings."
The new measure has stirred concerns from open government advocates that in-person access to elected officials in government will be limited by the move to allow a return to remote meetings.
"New Yorkers should not have to choose between remote access and in-person public meetings," a letter from advocacy groups said on Thursday. "It’s possible to do both, and many public agencies have."
The groups, including Reinvent Albany, the New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause, the New York News Publishers Association and the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York pointed to the potential benefits of continuing to offer a remote option for people who cannot otherwise access in-person meetings.
"The increase in remote access to public meetings helped those with ambulatory disabilities, childcare responsibilities, and incompatible work hours," the letter stated. "Unfortunately, many public bodies across the state returned to in-person meetings without remote access and participation for New Yorkers at home. This was a burden for those unable to make it to meeting locations, which can often be hours away."
A public hearing, the groups wrote, is best to allow for a chance to evaluate the law going forward during the pandemic.
"We believe that a hearing would provide a vital opportunity for the public, the press, and officials to weigh in on how the Open Meetings Law should be amended to reflect stakeholders’ changing needs," they wrote. "We ask that you hold a hearing as soon as possible so that input can be provided prior to the 2022 legislative session."