State may soon require all open meetings to be livestreamed 

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

A Knox Town Board meeting is recorded by a resident while another resident watches from home.

Following the widespread use of remote meeting platforms in response to the coronavirus pandemic, New York State lawmakers are hoping to retain the level of accessibility afforded by livestreamed meetings well after the pandemic is brought under control.

State Senator Anna Kaplan, a Democrat, and Assemblymember Matylde Frontus, also a Democrat, have introduced legislation that would require every local government to stream all open meetings and public hearings on its website in real time, upload those streams permanently on its site within five days, and keep them available for no less than five years. The legislation is in committee.

Currently, the content of bygone meetings can be most easily accessed through meeting minutes, taken by a town clerk, who is required only to make “a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon,” leaving significant variability in detail among municipalities. 

Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, thinks that the number of residents who tuned into public meetings while in-person meetings were restricted by coronavirus regulations prove the necessity of a more immediate and more convenient way to attend and view meetings after the fact.

“In March due to the pandemic,” he wrote in a mass email, on which The Enterprise was included, “Governor [Andrew] Cuomo issued an Executive Order requiring public bodies to live stream their meetings. With the ability to watch meetings live and to view recordings anytime, the number of people following local government meetings has skyrocketed.

“In the City of Ogdensburg,” he said, “with a population of 10,000, over 1,000 people registered to watch a City Council meeting live. The Buffalo Common Council recently had 18,000 people watch one of their meetings.”

For Wolf, the level of interest witnessed during the pandemic counters the popular notion that people don’t care about local government machinations.

“People are interested in what is going on in their community,” Wolf told The Enterprise this week. “People may not have the time with their busy lives to attend a town board meeting but, if government officials utilize technology to bring meetings to the public, the interest is clearly there.”

Locally, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District and the town of Guilderland have both been live-streaming meetings since before the pandemic, with BKW posting their meetings on the district Facebook page and Guilderland streaming directly to its website, where recordings of meetings are archived. The Guilderland school district does the same.

For all its board of education meetings, BKW simply sets up a tablet with recording capabilities that runs for the duration of the meeting, raking up hundreds of home viewers; only a handful show up in person month to month.

Guilderland Town Clerk Lynne Buchanan told The Enterprise that there’s no way to measure viewership of Guilderland’s live streams. The Guilderland school district’s website, however, records the number of views for each meeting. The Aug. 11 school board meeting garnered 293 views as of Tuesday.

While remotely accessible meetings will be a boon for many, the introduction of technology into a logistical system is not always a smooth process.

At its April 29 public hearing, held over the videoconferencing platform Zoom, the Berne Town Board suffered a number of technical errors that prevented residents from saying their piece, as well as an invasion of at least a dozen non-locals, an incident that reflected the larger trend of “Zoom bombing,” which took off as more and more organizations used the videoconferencing app during quarantine.

“I am sure we all learned a lot at this public hearing about the pitfalls of remote public hearings,” Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise after that meeting. “I hope we would not attempt this again for public hearings until we can assure ease of public comment.” 

There would be less room for such critical errors under the new mandate, as meetings would still be conducted in person and recorded in their usual way, but obstacles would exist nevertheless.

“Before the pandemic, I and many others had never used Zoom before,” said Wolf, a lawyer. “There is a small learning curve but many in government are resistant to change and doing things differently.

“Live-streaming an in-person meeting is a bit more complicated as equipment is required but again it is not that difficult or expensive,” said Wolf. “It is about whether the commitment and desire is present among government leaders to do it. There are communities small in population and budget that are doing live streaming whereas larger communities are not.”

In Knox, meetings are not streamed by the town but by a resident, though Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis told The Enterprise that he would be open to a law requiring the town to take on that role. 

“While I am certainly no fan of unfunded mandates, I’m all for it and think it’s a great idea,” he said.

He did not, however, answer questions about whether or not the town would move to record its meetings without being required by law. 

Wolf reiterated to The Enterprise his point about governments being slow to change, but highlighted their resilience when choice is removed from the matter.

“The pushback [to the law] will be from people who are comfortable conducting business the way it has always been done and who are uncomfortable with change,” Wolf said. “The Governor’s Executive Order requiring meetings to be live streamed during COVID, has worked and shows that local governments can and will adapt.

“In 2012, the Open Meetings Law was amended to mandate that meeting documents be posted online. There was concern that posting meeting documents online would be burdensome, but government officials for the most part figured it out.”

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