Driscoll Proposes Legislation to Codify Remote Public Meeting Option for Local Governments
MARCH 3, 2023 – Boston, MA – At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, time-limited legislation was passed to allow municipalities and representative town meetings to convene safely and remotely as they saw fit. When COVID transmission trends were high many local governing bodies and various municipal boards met entirely remote or in a hybrid format with some attendees gathering in-person while most participated via the internet or phone. These virtual or hybrid meetings were critical to local governments meeting their responsibilities to publicly conduct their business and hearings. The availability of remote meetings also increased access to government in new ways because members of the public could in real-time fully participate from home. These remote option provisions were extended for several intervals over the course of the past three years and many municipalities have shown interest in Massachusetts adopting them permanently.
“This proposal is important to different people in different ways. For me it is mainly about the resiliency of cities and towns and also greater access and participation in government. Local cable access channels revolutionized the ability for people to watch public meetings from home, but the pandemic forced us to take the next step and showed us that remote participation is possible and has proven to be a vehicle for greater public engagement and participation in the democratic process,” Driscoll says.
An Act relative to remote access for public bodies and town meetings (H.D. 911) expands opportunity for local public meetings to carry out business through a fully remote or hybrid format in the event of an emergency, allowing participants who join virtually to be counted in attendance, contributing toward quorums, and will have the capability to vote as well as have access to discussion.
This Driscoll proposed bill gives the authority to local governments to make decisions about remote meetings. Previously, the Legislature made the official decision permitting remote or hybrid public meetings dependent on the COVID-19 public health emergency, if adopted, this would become a local decision avoiding any delay from waiting for a state legislative action and allowing local officials to consider local circumstances, whether related to COVID-19 or not.
This legislation would help to ensure that important local business can stay on track and is safely conducted regardless of inclement weather or another local emergency that previously would have been cause for postponement of the meeting.
“If adopted this bill offers municipal leaders flexibility through any future fluctuations in COVID-19 trends or local emergency that creates an obstacle or safety concern regarding official in-person gatherings,” continues Driscoll. “We saw how important it is to have continuity plans in place at all levels of government, and remote access eliminates obstacles by permitting the continuation of local governance and processes in the event of an emergency.”