Like all entities, the Chemung County Legislature has been forced to adapt its practices to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the social distancing measures currently in place.
Under ordinary circumstances, New York’s Open Meetings Laws (OML) requires elected bodies to allow members of the public to attend meetings, and the rules of Chemung County’s Legislature permit anyone to speak for up to five minutes on any topic at the start of full meetings.
Executive Order temporarily changes Open Meetings Laws
However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo passed an Executive Order on March 7th that suspends parts of the OML in order to allow local governments to attend to important matters without requiring officials to gather in crowds. The full text of Executive Order 202.1 is found here and the relevant portion is embedded below:
An article recently published here on JD Supra, a website focused on emerging legal decisions and trends, explained the three ways for local governments in New York to hold meetings lawfully under the Executive Order:
Members of the public body are either physically present or participating via videoconferencing, and the general public is allowed to physically attend the meeting location(s) as is provided for under the Open Meetings Law;
Members of the public body are physically present but the general public is not allowed to physically attend the meeting location; the public must be allowed to view or listen to such meetings and the public body must record and later transcribe such meetings; or
Members of the public body meet via conference call or videoconference, with no in‐person location; the public must be allowed to listen to or view such meetings and the public body must record and later transcribe such meetings.
Another article published here by Bond, Scheneck & King, a law firm specializing in municipal law, also explains the new rules.
What is happening in Chemung County?
Beginning last month, all legislators aside from Chairperson Dave Manchester, who continues to appear in person, were asked to call in to the meetings using a teleconferencing system to avoid unnecessary gatherings.
The Legislature has unfortunately not moved ahead with installing live-streaming equipment in its chambers even though it is available through a grant obtained by Chemung County Executive Chris Moss last year. If it had, the meetings, like those of the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency and other local entities, would simply be broadcast in real-time with the recording stored on our website. Ironically one of the resolutions on tonight’s Agenda calls for the creation of a “Live-Stream” Committee to address this issue.
Currently the Legislature does not provide a way for the public to listen to meetings while they are happening. Instead, it opted to create audio recordings and publish them along with the Minutes after the meeting concludes. A link to an audio recording from the Legislature’s March 23rd Standing Committee meetings is found here. The audio recording from last Monday’s Budget Committee meeting is not available on the Legislature’s website as of the time this blog post was published.
Members of the public are permitted to offer public comments at the Legislature’s full meetings by sending an email to email@example.com. The comments will be read into the record at the start of the meeting. Pleas note that the Legislature will hold a full meeting tonight (April 13th) beginning at 7:00 pm. An Agenda for the meeting can be accessed here.
Is this the best practice?
Chemung County is technically complying with the law, as the Executive Order modifying the OML does not require live broadcasting of meetings. It simply requires that members of the public have (a) an opportunity to listen or watch the meeting; and (b) a recording is made available to the public.
However, we can do much better. I was recently contacted by a member of the media who was interested in attending a meeting. I had to say no, and instructed her to wait for the audio recording to be published.
Asking the public or media to wait a week or more to listen to the meeting’s recordings may not violate the law, but it is in direct contravention of the spirit of open meetings protections, things that exist to both keep people informed and hold government accountable.
Everyone should be afforded patience as we adopt to live inside a pandemic. However, we are more than six weeks in, and the abundance of inexpensive technology can allow for much greater transparency. Starting tonight I will resume live-streaming of the meetings to the Chemung County Matters Facebook page, found here. I hope members of the Chemung County Legislature are able to work together so we can get to a point where I no longer need to do so.