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Following votes to temporarily extend certain pandemic policies, over a dozen advocacy organizations are calling for permanent reforms to ensure continued virtual access to public meetings. The groups — including disability rights and free press organizations — support legislation to make remote access for public meetings permanent and routine at all levels of government.
“We commend the legislature for moving to allow remote public meetings until April 2022,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “But we have concerns about what will happen as more and more state agencies and city halls reopen in person. Unless they also enable members of the public to join remotely, they will be shutting the door again on those members of the community who have always been left out of our political process. We must not return to an inequitable past as the Commonwealth moves forward.”
“Even as we emerge from the lockdown of the pandemic, there is no reason to move backwards from this new era of public access,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Continuing to provide virtual broadcasts of government meetings is good for the public, good for the media, and good for government.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Baker issued an Executive Order suspending certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law to enable public bodies to carry out their responsibilities while adhering to public health recommendations.
In many communities across the state, virtual access to public meetings has significantly increased public participation in local government, and has removed longstanding barriers for people with disabilities, people with limited access to transportation, and people with work and family obligations. As public bodies return to conducting meetings in person, the advocacy organizations warn that newly opened doors to civic engagement will be shut —and people with disabilities and other barriers to in-person participation will be shut out —unless remote access is preserved.
“Last year saw the majority of buildings and venues becoming inaccessible to society at large — and suddenly there was this universal understanding of what inaccessibility meant, whether in the context of a disability or a raging global pandemic. Remote work and virtual meetings thus emerged as an accessibility accommodation, and in fact one that the disability community had been calling for, for many years before COVID,” said Dianna Hu, chairperson of the Boston Center for Independent Living. “Remote participation is the latest manifestation of universal design — alongside curb cuts, elevators, closed captioning, audiobooks, and other accessibility features that expanded to universal popularity. We now have a remarkable opportunity to not only uphold but to also optimize accessibility, making remote participation a curb cut 2.0 for the modern day and age.”
“By requiring a remote access option to participate in local government, we ‘opened up’ our Open Meetings. As a result, area residents can more easily participate in decisions about their schools, towns and cities. Parents and caregivers, residents who cannot drive or have no transit access, people who are temporarily out of town, or people with disabilities all benefit from having a way to participate in government without having to physically get to a municipal building to do so,” said Deirdre Cummings, Legislative Director, MASSPIRG. “We must ensure this critical civic tool continues after the pandemic.”
“We need a permanent system requiring in-person meetings while also allowing online access for citizens who cannot be in the room,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “It’s a matter of access and public oversight. NEFAC looks forward to working with its open government allies to make this a reality in the Commonwealth.”
H.3152/S.2082 would update the Open Meeting law to ensure that public bodies continue to provide remote access to their meetings after the state of emergency is lifted.
Endorsing organizations include the ACLU of Massachusetts; Boston Center for Independent Living; Citizens for Public Schools; Common Cause Massachusetts; Disability Law Center; Disability Policy Consortium; Greater Boston Legal Services; League of Women Voters; Mass Senior Action Council; Massachusetts Communities Action Network; Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association; MassPIRG; Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee; and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
More information about “An Act to Modernize Participation in Public Meetings” can be found here.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.