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New Open Meetings Bill Is Far From Transparent

We’d like to give Gov. Kathy Hochul the benefit of the doubt.

She is, after all, a Western New Yorker who is no stranger to Chautauqua County.

But we wonder if the new governor actually read her press statement announcing her signing of S.5001/A.4001 which allows virtual participation in local government meetings.

“Let’s be clear–the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I’ve heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually,” Hochul said. “This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers’ access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we’re committed to maintaining in the Empire State.”

First off, the bills were virtually snuck into a special session of the state Legislature with no public notice that it would be discussed. The text of the bill wasn’t available until after the session had already started.

That’s not very transparent.

We agree with Paul Wolf of the New York Coalition for Open Government, who is advocating for hybrid meetings that allow in-person attendance with the ability to view a livestream remotely; provides for public comments to occur during meetings both in-person and remotely, and which requires meeting videos to be posted online after a meeting.

None of those common-sense measures are included in a bill Hochul says strengthens an “open and transparent style of government.” Actually, the state’s legislation allows boards that want to exclude the public to do so by shutting them out of meetings if a board is so inclined. Live-streaming meetings on Facebook allows for some form of public questioning — local school districts used the feature quite well during the pandemic.

This law was passed during an extraordinary session of the state Legislature. Maybe it will take a super-duper-special-out-of-the-ordinary session to pass a bill that works.

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