From the Beacon, June 2021

What a difference a month makes!

With Massachusetts leading the nation in vaccinations, and health indicators all heading in the right direction, Gov. Charlie Baker and his team have made the determination that we can accelerate our return to a more normal life. While much of the country was already headed there, our state has consistently, and rightly, been more prudent, basing decisions on science, data and reality.

The abrupt end of the state of emergency on June 15 will create a number of major transition challenges for government and businesses. We’re not going back to yesterday’s normal. We’re jumping ahead to a “new normal,” and that won’t be like flipping an “on” switch — it will be a process, with phases and stages, starts and stops, and twists and turns.

The most immediate and urgent issue that must be addressed is enactment of a permanent extension of the ability to conduct public meetings and hearings remotely.

On March 12, 2020, the governor used his state-of-emergency powers to issue an executive order suspending certain provisions of the open meeting law, allowing cities and towns to conduct meetings remotely. This was necessary because the existing state statute is woefully inadequate, does not allow remote participation in meetings unless a physical quorum is present, and reduces the ability of officials who are participating virtually to fully engage. Nearly overnight, cities and towns adopted new technology and software platforms and created a remarkably successful all-remote meeting experience for municipal leaders and the public.

Remote meetings have engaged more residents than ever before and have significantly increased transparency and insight into government operations and decision-making. Communities do not want to snap back to the overly confining pre-pandemic rules, and most are not in a position to do so quickly. Many localities have closed public buildings, repurposed meeting rooms to provide safer distancing for municipal employees, or have longer-term ventilation concerns that have yet to be addressed.

Further, with many residents yet to be vaccinated, and immuno-compromised officials and members of the public unable to achieve full protection from the coronavirus, it is imperative that we continue the remote meeting option for local government.

Amending state laws, especially those that impose conditions and requirements on a diverse range of communities, is always tricky. The more restrictive the rules, the worse the fit and the harder it is for everyone to comply.

This issue is a perfect case study. With multiple councils, boards and commissions in place in each of our 351 cities and towns, there are thousands of public bodies that come under the open meeting law. Even our smallest towns each have about 20 boards, committees and commissions. Medium-sized communities have about 35 such entities. Larger communities have even more. Simple math brings us close to 10,000 local bodies that must comply with the open meeting law — just at the municipal level.

Different public bodies have different capacity or need for remote and in-person meetings. How one board chooses or is capable of operating remotely varies widely from other boards in the same city or town, and this variation is even more drastic from municipality to municipality, especially in those regions that still lack robust broadband infrastructure.

That is why we believe maintaining flexibility is important and why we disagree with pending legislative proposals that would mandate that each public body provide a remote video platform for all meetings and require that every meeting have a physical location available for public participation.

Mandating all meetings to offer simultaneous remote and in-person access would require expensive hybrid meeting formats that integrate in-person and virtual interaction. While that may be the format of the future, and an aspirational goal, it is impractical today. Nearly every city and town hall would be forced to retrofit all meeting spaces with expensive technology (cameras, microphone systems, multiple large-screen displays, and more costly platform licenses). Without these investments, a hybrid meeting experience would be a cacophony of iPads, laptops, audio feedback, sound echoes and the like.

The best policy is to allow the option of remote meetings, providing communities with a base upon which they can build going forward, investing in technology on an affordable self-funded timeline, while allowing in-person reengagement and reconnection as committees wish to do so.

For these reasons, the MMA is asking the Legislature to grant public bodies a permanent option to hold remote meetings, and that this action be expedited as a top legislative priority to avoid disruption to local deliberations and decision-making.

Along with the option of permanent remote meetings of public bodies, the MMA is also asking lawmakers to advance permanent legislation to allow for remote representative and open town meetings, election provisions such as the option to vote by mail, the ability to move municipal election and caucus dates during future emergencies, and the continuation of expedited permitting for outdoor table service and take-out alcoholic beverages.

With the support of our partners in state government, Massachusetts can act on the innovations and lessons learned during the past 14 months, and use them to improve government operations, transparency and public engagement to ensure a swifter recovery for our communities. This should be a thoughtful process that ensures the time, resources and planning necessary to have a seamless transition to the new normal.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO