NEFAC, Mass. Public Access Advocates Testify in Support of Guaranteed Hybrid Open Meetings

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The New England First Amendment Coalition joined municipal leaders, disability advocates, and other open government organizations today to testify in support of legislation that will guarantee greater access to open meetings by allowing members of the public to attend and participate in meetings in person or remotely.

NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman testified in front of the Massachusetts state Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight about the benefits such access would have on local journalism.

“By requiring public bodies to provide hybrid access, Senate Bill 2024 and House Bill 3040 allow journalists across the state to attend multiple meetings remotely and provide much needed local coverage that would not otherwise exist,” Silverman told the committee. “At the same time, the bills require public bodies to meet in person so journalists, not to mention other constituents, can still meet offline with officials and have conversations not easily had via Zoom.”

Read NEFAC’s full testimony here.

An Act to Modernize Participation in Public Meetings (H.3040/S.2024), sponsored by Rep. Denise Garlick and Sen. Jason Lewis, seeks to update the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law to guarantee hybrid meetings. As opposed to meetings conducted exclusively in person or exclusively online, hybrid meetings maximize civic engagement by allowing participants to choose the format that works best for them.

NEFAC is one of many advocates for open government, journalism and disability rights that are supporting the legislation. The coalition has been working closely with allies in Massachusetts to guarantee hybrid access to open meetings.

Here is a sample of other testimony provided today by supporters of the bills:

“I’ve been driving a motorized wheelchair since I was two years old, and it was during the pandemic that I attended my first legislative hearing – remotely,” said Dianna Hu, chairperson of the Boston Center for Independent Living. “Hybrid meetings are the latest instance of universal design, enabling residents across the state to engage with our government in a new and empowering way. We must bring this curb cut 2.0 into its rightful place of permanence.”

“Hybrid access has become an essential part of public life,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Having the option to attend meetings virtually has given many of our neighbors – particularly those with disabilities, caregiving responsibilities, or limited transportation – the ability to more easily participate in our democracy. We need to safeguard and expand this option for all members of our Commonwealth.”

“Our 44 local Leagues of Women Voters across the state are deeply involved in  the governments in their towns and cities. The League strongly supports this bill to assure that all residents can readily access and participate in the local government meetings that make so many major decisions about their lives,” said Pattye Comfort, executive director, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts.

“Government participation and transparency is the cornerstone to a strong democracy,” said Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG’s legislative director. “This bill provides for both,  making government meetings more accessible and transparent.”

“Hybrid meetings are the only way to maximize public access to government deliberations. We can no longer accept the exclusion of large segments of the population from the democratic process simply because inclusion has a price tag or because change is inconvenient,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We can do better, and we know how. In fact, nearly half of all Massachusetts city councils and select boards are already conducting hybrid meetings. The legislature should update the Open Meeting Law to guarantee hybrid meetings across the Commonwealth moving forward.”

“A guiding principle of the disability justice movement is ‘Nothing About Us Without Us,’” explained Barbara L’Italien, executive director of the Disability Law Center.  “By focusing on inclusion and equity, and welcoming the participation of 11.5% of the population, our communities and our democracy will only become stronger.”

This legislation will provide municipalities the time and money needed to establish hybrid open meetings by:

· Creating a Municipal Hybrid Meeting Trust Fund and a grant program to help municipalities finance their modernization efforts.
· Prioritizing adoption by state agencies and elected municipal bodies.
· Allowing economic hardship waivers for non-elected municipal bodies.
· Giving more than five years – until 2030 – to phase in universal compliance.

The bill is backed by the ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, New England First Amendment Coalition, and New England Newspaper & Press Association.

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.

Leadership Circle donors include the Rhode Island Foundation, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, and the Robertson Foundation. Major Supporters include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Boston University, the Academy of New England Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation, Genie Gannett for the First Amendment Museum, Linda Pizzuti Henry, the Champa Charitable Foundation Fund and Connecticut Public.