From the Beacon, April 2022

The public has seen the very best from government at all levels during the pandemic. Local, state and federal officials have collaborated as never before, responding to the public health crisis with agility, rapid change management and innovative approaches to vexing problems. The governor and lieutenant governor, members of the Legislature, state agencies and our federal lawmakers have worked with cities and towns as true partners during the most complex intergovernmental action of our lifetimes. This has saved countless lives and made Massachusetts far safer than most states.

The omicron variants are still percolating throughout our communities, yet all leading health indicators point to a new phase of the pandemic. The massive spike of transmission in January receded as quickly as it came, and communities are moving toward a “new normal” mode, with contingency plans that can be quickly scaled to reintroduce vaccine and mask requirements in public places, testing protocols, and other active health interventions. Members of the public and businesses are moving forward as they feel comfortable, mostly in the same direction, but at their own speeds.

One of the unsung victories during the pandemic — especially during the extraordinary shutdown period two years ago — was the rapid implementation of virtual meetings to keep government operating. With COVID-19 transmission flattening, communities are gradually moving back to in-person meetings, many are allowing their individual public entities to decide which mode feels most comfortable, and some — those fortunate enough to have the resources — are considering hybrid formats.

One of the unique characteristics of municipal government is that cities and towns are dominated by “nighttime” governance. Mayors and city and town managers hold the reins during the day and manage the professional staff and implement policy. In general, though, a huge portion of local government is shaped by community residents who are elected or appointed. Local government relies on volunteers (or near-volunteers) to make essential policy decisions. With few exceptions, city and town councils, select boards, school committees, health boards, and planning and zoning boards meet at night, as do dozens of citizen-led panels in every community. In total, there are thousands of local boards, committees, commissions, and authorities in our 351 towns and cities.

One of Gov. Charlie Baker’s first COVID executive orders allowed communities to conduct public meetings remotely, using new and widely available internet-based technology. The Legislature moved swiftly to extend this authority twice after that executive order was phased out, providing much-needed flexibility during uncertain times, including several COVID surges during the past 18 months. However, the remote meeting extension will end on July 15 unless it is renewed in state law — presenting a perfect opportunity to make the virtual/remote meeting option permanent. Doing so will ensure a smooth transition during future health emergencies and build a new level of resilience into our system of municipal governance.

Remote town meetings and caucuses
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the governor’s state of emergency powers suspended certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law (M.G.L. Ch. 30A, Sect. 20) and the laws governing town meetings. Municipalities worked quickly to adopt new platforms and technology to create successful remote town meeting experiences for their governments and the public. As technology continues to advance and improve these essential functions, there is a need to update outdated state law to make these options permanent, not only for representative town meetings, but for open town meetings and local caucuses as well.

With these laws set to expire on July 15, many communities are reluctant to return to confining meeting rules, while others simply don’t have adequate physical capacity to return to in-person-only meetings, especially if social distancing is required. Enacting a permanent option for remote Town Meetings and caucuses would provide cities and towns with needed flexibility to prepare for important and timely local governance decisions, all while keeping public health as the top priority.

Remote participation by public bodies
As noted, remote participation at public meetings has ensured continuity of operations during the public health crisis and provided the additional benefit of enhanced equity in access, public engagement, and transparency in government operations. Thousands of public entities have relied on remote meetings and virtual platforms to conduct their business. With new technologies developing rapidly, and an increased investment in equipment by these public entities, remote meetings have been very successful and effective for cities and towns from the Berkshires to Cape Cod to Cape Ann and everywhere in between.

The existing state statute under the open meeting law is rigid, inadequate, does not allow remote participation unless a physical quorum is already present, and challenges the ability of officials who are participating virtually to fully engage. Snapping back to the pre-COVID rules would erode the progress that has been made in using technology to improve the effectiveness of public governance.

Additionally, it is important to note that flexibility is imperative, as different public entities have different capacities, needs and preferences. For example, legislation such as H. 3152 and S. 2082, which would mandate alternative means of public access to public deliberations, are not the answer. The bills would cause significant disruption by forcing communities to adopt expensive hybrid meeting equipment and retrofit old buildings. With up to 30, 40 or even 50 local boards, commissions, committees, subcommittees, advisory committees and authorities subject to the open meeting law in every locality, cities and towns do not have the equipment, meeting space, technology licenses, or financial resources to implement a hybrid mandate.

If such a mandate is enacted, most entities would be effectively forced to meet in an all-virtual format, with very few in-person gatherings, as hybrid is extremely complex and infeasible for the vast majority of municipalities at this time. Instead, MMA is requesting that the option for remote meetings be made permanent, allowing communities to create a base to build on with best practices going forward, investing in technology on a budgeted, affordable, sustainable and self-funded timeline.

With the continued support of our valued partners in state government, local leaders can act on the innovations and lessons learned during the past 25 months, and use them to improve government operations and create a resilient framework to allow our hometown governments to operate safely no matter what the emergency or situation. Making remote meetings a permanent option is a key part of this agenda.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO