Who is a member?
Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
The Honorable Ronald J. Mariano, Speaker of the House
The Honorable Karen E. Spilka, Senate President
State House, Boston
Dear Speaker Mariano and President Spilka,
On behalf of cities and towns of the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Municipal Association wants to thank you for your enduring partnership with all our communities, as demonstrated over the more than two years since the pandemic began, as state and local governments worked together to help develop innovative solutions to sustain government decision-making and operations.
The Legislature’s action to create the broad range of special rules that enabled cities and towns to continue to conduct business, hold elections, create budgets, and support residents and local economies was vital, and we thank you for this critical work. As local officials closely watch the case counts of the highly contagious BA.2 variant, we know this is unlikely to be the last public health threat facing the Commonwealth and its residents. Thus, as we quickly approach the expiration of these current temporary authorizations on July 15th, it is essential to enact permanent options for remote meetings, caucuses, and remote town meetings.
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 (Section 20 of M.G.L. Chapter 30A), and 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 As technology continues to advance and improve these essential functions, there is a need to update outdated state law to make these options permanent, not only for representative town meetings, but for open town meetings and local caucuses, as well.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. Enacting a permanent option for remote town meetings and caucuses would allow cities and towns to have the 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
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. With multiple councils, boards and commissions in place in each of our 351 member communities, there are thousands of public entities that 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 all the way to the Cape and Islands.
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. With the immediate disruption of the pandemic two years ago, municipalities adopted new technology and software platforms and created a new and remarkably successful remote meeting experience for municipal leaders and the public.
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 to compel 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, we ask that the option for remote meetings be made permanent, allowing communities to create a base with which to build upon best practices going forward, investing in technology on a budgeted, affordable and self-funded timeline.
We thank you for your leadership during the pandemic and for your strong support for cities and towns. Enacting permanent options for municipalities is critical to move the Commonwealth forward as we collectively settle into the “new normal.” Doing so will prevent avoidable disruptions to local government and give communities the ability to incorporate technology improvements and implement public engagement strategies on a sustainable basis going forward.
Thank you for your consideration of this important matter. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your office contact me or MMA Legislative Analyst Ali DiMatteo at 617-426-7272 or email@example.com at any time.
Geoffrey C. Beckwith
MMA Executive Director & CEO
The Honorable Antonio Cabral, House Chair
The Honorable Marc Pacheco, Senate Chair
Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight