A municipal group of (l-r) Lexington Town Manager James Malloy, Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson, and Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine testified on remote meetings and the open meeting law.

The Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight heard testimony yesterday on a number of bills dealing with open meeting law issues.

Most of testimony during the virtual hearing addressed whether certain open meeting law flexibilities allowed during the pandemic should, in one form or another, be continued after the COVID-19 state of emergency ends in a couple weeks.

The MMA, along with Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts—the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, testified in support of making permanent the option for public bodies to continue to meet remotely.

“We have heard loud and clear from our members, who present to planning boards, conservation commissions, state licensing boards and myriad other public bodies, that this legislation is critical to ensuring municipal and state entities have the flexibility they need to best serve their constituents in the post-pandemic world,” Small said.

MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said 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.”

He said many cities and towns 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,” he said.

Also testifying was a municipal panel consisting of Lexington Town Manager James Malloy, Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson, and Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine.

Malloy said the increased participation seen during remote meetings is something he would like to see continued. Traditionally, in-person select board meetings draw about five to 10 people, but remote meetings boast upwards of 40 to 50 people.

Jacobson said the remote meeting option improves convenience, which helps communities attract and retain members to public bodies. Remote meetings also provide better public access to government decision-making.

Chapdelaine said returning to in-person meetings may be the choice of some public bodies, but it’s important to retain the option of continuing to meet remotely.

Carrie Benedon of the Attorney General’s Division of Open Government was the first to testify on the two bills before the committee, H. 3213 and S. 2104, saying that her office supports the goal of making permanent the flexibility offered during the pandemic. She said some provisions should be made to allow for the public to be able to attend a meeting in a physical location.

In written testimony, the MMA asked the committee to consider “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.”

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