Who is a member?
Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
The Honorable Marc R. Pacheco, Senate Chair
The Honorable Antonio F.D. Cabral, House Chair
Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight
Boston, MA 02133
Dear Senator Pacheco, Representative Cabral, and Distinguished Members of the Committee,
On behalf of cities and towns across the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Municipal Association is writing to express our strong and enthusiastic support for the framework established within H. 3213 and S. 2104, An Act Updating the Open Meeting Law to Support Remote Participation.
The abrupt end of the state of emergency on June 15 will create a number of major transition challenges for government and businesses. 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 Section 20 of M.G.L. Chapter 30A, 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 new and remarkably successful 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 staff, 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. With multiple councils, boards and commissions in place in each of our 351 cities and towns, there are well over 1,000 public entities that rely on remote meetings and virtual platforms to conduct everyday business in much greater public view than ever before.
Different public bodies have different capacity and preferences for remote or in-person meetings. That is why we believe maintaining flexibility is important and why we disagree with the language in H. 3152 and S. 2082, which would mandate that each public body create an alternative means of public access to their deliberations. 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. Further, this mandate could be interpreted as immediately requiring expensive hybrid meeting formats that integrate in-person and virtual interaction. While that may be the format of the future, 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). 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.
For these reasons, we ask that you consider allowing public bodies the 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.
With your support, 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. Along with the option of permanent remote meetings of public bodies, we also ask you to advance permanent legislation to allow for remote Representative and Open Town Meetings, election provisions such as the option to vote by mail and the ability to move municipal election and caucus dates during emergencies, and expedited permitting for outdoor table service and take-out alcoholic beverages.
The MMA and NAIOP Massachusetts–The Commercial Real Estate Development Association have collaborated on this issue, and with the support of both organizations we have attached further language building upon the framework offered by H. 3213 and S. 2104. These provisions are designed to embrace municipal and business perspectives to lead our communities forward into a permanent new era of open, transparent and efficient governance. We respectfully ask that you report out this language favorably.
We thank you for your leadership during the pandemic, and for your strong support for cities and towns. With the state of emergency scheduled to end in less than two weeks, it is imperative that the transition to our “new normal” is seamless. With your support, 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, and ensure a swifter recovery for our communities.
Thank you very much for your interest in these very important local government matters. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your office contact me or MMA Senior Legislative Analyst Brittney Franklin at 617-426-7272 or firstname.lastname@example.org at any time.
Geoffrey C. Beckwith
MMA Executive Director & CEO