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The New England First Amendment Coalition testified today in support of legislation in Massachusetts that would preserve the ability of citizens to attend public meetings both remotely and in-person.
Senate Bill 2082 and House Bill 3152 would require government agencies to provide remote access to all public meetings unless a waiver for economic hardship is granted by the state. While NEFAC expressed concerns over the waiver process, the coalition called the legislation “a great stride toward universal access.”
“The legislation will make permanent one of the few silver linings of the ongoing pandemic: remote access to public meetings and the increased engagement between citizens and government that results,” wrote NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman in written testimony submitted today.
“By continuing to require in-person public access, the legislation also preserves the benefits of meeting with representatives face-to-face and being physically present during proceedings,” he added.
The legislation will help increase transparency and provide a boost to local newsrooms who are often burdened by the time and travel necessary to attend meetings, Silverman explained.
“There are communities throughout the Commonwealth that aren’t receiving the news coverage they deserve,” he wrote. “While certainly not a cure-all for local journalism’s ills, expanded accessibility to public meetings will undoubtedly lead to more oversight, less secrecy and better governance.”
In its June 2 testimony to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on State Administration & Regulatory Oversight, however, the coalition described two flaws in the waiver process:
• The bills do not specify under what conditions a waiver for economic hardship should be granted and do not require public bodies to detail actions taken to avoid needing a waiver in the future.
• When a waiver is granted, the bill provides up to 10 business days for the public body to post a recording or other comprehensive record of the proceeding to its website. Given the public’s need for timely and accurate information, NEFAC considers this allowance unreasonable and excessive.
Despite those concerns, Silverman called the legislation “a common-sense measure that will stand as a model to be followed.”
“Timing and technology,” he wrote, “now present an opportunity the Commonwealth should embrace.”
NEFAC is the leading advocate for First Amendment freedoms and open government in New England. It fights to protect press rights and promote transparency throughout the six-state region. Learn more about how the coalition is helping to increase government transparency.
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.