Remote participation in government improved access, but maybe at a cost

Boston Statehouse

A man types on a computer keyboard in this photo illustration. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

BOSTON (SHNS) – In Northampton, holding meetings remotely allowed the city’s police review commission to offer real-time Spanish interpretation. One member of that panel — Booker Bush, a 69-year-old physician who also serves on the Northampton Human Rights Commission — told state lawmakers Wednesday that he’s been more involved in the political process over the past year than any other in his life.

Myra Ross, an Amherst resident who is blind, said she’s been able to participate in municipal meetings because of platforms like Zoom and that “losing this opportunity to be an equal participant would be a tragedy to Massachusetts.”

And Dedham’s live-streamed meetings for the community master planning process have been attended by parents making dinner and residents of senior housing who wouldn’t normally drive to town hall at night, Select Board member Sarah MacDonald said.

“We cannot and should not go back to the days of having to be in the room to participate in government,” MacDonald told the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

A March 2020 order from Gov. Charlie Baker gave local and state bodies the ability to meet quorum requirements remotely during the COVID-19 state of emergency as long as they ensured the public could access deliberations. Now, with the June 15 end of the state of emergency looming, remote meeting flexibilities are among the host of pandemic-era policies that lawmakers must decide if they wish to let lapse, extend in the short-term or keep permanently.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Antonio Cabral and Sen. Marc Pacheco, accepted testimony on a suite of bills involving both officials’ ability to join meetings remotely and the public’s access to those meetings by internet and telephone.

Supporters said the ability to follow government processes remotely opens up participation to those who would otherwise face barriers like transportation, work schedules, and child care. Those challenges apply not only to those who want to watch their government but those who want to serve, according to some lawmakers who addressed the committee.

Rep. Mindy Domb, speaking in favor of bills (H 3224, S 2037) that would change the state’s open meeting law to allow for virtual meetings of appointed statewide bodies, said that a two-hour evening meeting in Boston can amount to an eight-hour commitment or more for someone from Western Massachusetts, who would also need to be able to leave work early, arrange transportation, and pay for costs like parking and gas.

“Not only are we cutting off people’s ability to participate and their capacity to participate in government, but we’re also reducing what government gets from Western Massachusetts, from the Cape, from other parts,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Ways and Means Committee has custody of a Baker bill that would extend three pandemic measures beyond June 15 — the ability for public bodies to meet via videoconference as long as they maintain public access, special permits for outdoor dining, and a ban on medical providers billing patients for COVID-related care above the costs paid by insurers.

As legislators weigh the role remote and virtual meetings will play in Massachusetts’ post-pandemic future, they’re hearing about both gains in access via technology and concerns about what might be lost when elected officials and their constituents are not in the same room.

The State House remains closed to the public, and the two committees solicited public input on their bills via different avenues. The Senate Ways and Means Committee accepted testimony by email, while the State Administration Committee allowed both email testimony and live spoken testimony over Microsoft Teams.

In testimony shared with both committees, Carrie Benedon, director of the division of open government of Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, said Healey supports “the goal of making permanent the flexibility under the Open Meeting Law during the COVID-19 state of emergency.” Benedon said that because technology does not always work perfectly and is not universally available to all, “some provision should be made to require a physical meeting location, with some representation of the public body present, where members of the public can view the meeting and participate in person if participation is being allowed.”

Oami Amarasingham of the American Civil Liberties of Massachusetts and Bob Ambrogi of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association offered similar feedback to the Committee on State Administration, touting the ability to tune in to a public meeting virtually as a boon for civic engagement but describing face-to-face interactions with constituents and the press as important to government transparency and accessibility.

Ambrogi said he doesn’t believe all members of a body should be required to attend in-person, but that physical meetings should continue to the extent possible.

“Yes, they can see them on a Zoom, but no, they cannot walk up to them afterward, engage with them and talk to them and converse with them in that way,” he said.

Amarasingham said that as state and local restrictions lifted, some communities began holding hybrid public meetings that are streamed online with elected officials and some members physically present in the same room.

“Remote access removes longstanding barriers to participation in policymaking for residents with disabilities, seniors, people with limited access to transportation and people with work and family commitments that otherwise prevent them from spending hours at municipal buildings,” she said.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee received about 380 pieces of written testimony on Baker’s bill and a Sen. Will Brownsberger bill to extend town meeting flexibilities.

More than 100 people sent emails incorporating language from a template circulated by the group Health Rights MA, which describes itself as a grassroots initiative “with a goal of reaffirming and protecting the rights of people of Massachusetts to make decisions about their own bodies through proactive health freedom legislation.”

Those emails described “a trying year for the public dealing with polarizing restrictions, including being denied in-person access to elected officials, or the ability to speak our minds and share our input on decisions directly influencing our lives,” and said that people have the right to access, watch and record their elected officials.

Some bill critics who wrote to the committee raised concerns with Baker’s use of emergency orders during the pandemic and said that if people are able to attend sporting events, travel on airplanes, go to the supermarket and more, they should also be able to attend public meetings in person.

Quincy Sen. John Keenan said that while he generally supports “efforts to allow for remote participation in local open town meetings” and supports “allowing remote participation by the public in meetings of local councils, boards, and commissions,” he opposes Baker’s proposal to allow fully remote meetings through Sept. 1.

“I believe it is time for local elected and appointed members of town meetings, councils, boards, and commissions to meet at the times and in the places they met prior to the passage of the emergency measures,” Keenan wrote.

Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem backed the extension.

“As cities and towns transition to their new normal, it is important that we give them the tools to operate with flexibility to ensure the safety of their residents,” she wrote.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Only on WWLP.com | Digital First

More Digital First

Trending Stories

Donate Today