BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–The state needs to take action to make remote participation in town meetings permanent, according to the president of the Local Government Advisory Commission.
In Lexington, where LGAC President Jill Hai is a select board member, representatives at Town Meeting last year voted to create a bylaw to permanently allow the town to operate town meetings remotely. They also filed a home rule petition with the state to incorporate remote access.
With a looming March 31 deadline that marks the end of the state’s pandemic-era accommodations to authorize remote local government meetings, Hai said Lexington may have to hold its next Town Meeting in person, despite last year’s vote.
“The Attorney General’s Office will not approve our bylaw, because they’re waiting for the Legislature to act on the home rule petition, and the Legislature appears to be waiting for a statewide solution. So we are stuck in limbo,” Hai said at an LGAC meeting on Tuesday. “We’re hamstrung, and I am quite sure we are not the only community.”
Hai joined Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyre in calling for the state to extend remote and hybrid meeting options beyond March 31 at the first LGAC meeting since Gov. Maura Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll took office. Driscoll was present at the meeting to hear local leaders’ concerns and priorities.
“I really believe that the future in governing and in corporate life is to continue to use this new technology to benefit ourselves and our communities,” Tyre said. Tyre said she hopes for an extension of the option for towns to use the accommodation, rather than a mandate, as she said not every community can afford the technology or staff to handle remote meeting technology.
In Pittsfield the community development board continues to meet remotely, she added. “One of the benefits of that is greater community engagement. People who might not be able to join in person are able to Zoom in, make their public comment and then go back to whatever they’re doing,” Tyre said.
The Senate recently voted to permanently allow remote voting in state Senate sessions, continuing what had been an pandemic-era rule in the chamber. While the House will require members to be in person to vote, the House and Senate adopted a hybrid committee hearing structure that will allow for both in-person and remote participation for most legislators and the public.
“In many communities across the state, remote and hybrid meetings significantly and equitably increase public participation in local government,” the ACLU of Massachusetts and Common Cause said of the House’s decision on committee hearings.
Tyre said on Tuesday that she hopes for another extension of the pandemic-era authorization while the state works on a permanent solution. “It’s our hope that there’ll be another extension, so that we can continue to work towards developing some legislation and regulations around how to continue to use this really important technology that increases efficiency and access in all of our communities,” she said.
Driscoll thanked Hai and Tyre. She didn’t commit to a position and said the topic is “definitely on our radar.”