FOR A WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS resident to attend a two-hour meeting in Boston, it’s an eight to 10 hour commitment, said state Rep. Mindy Domb, an Amherst Democrat. To get to Boston in the early evening, someone needs to take time off from work to drive into the city. They must have their own car and money to pay for gas and parking. They might have to pay a babysitter. They will get home at 10 or 11 p.m.
“My neighbors, friends, coworkers won’t even consider participating in a statewide board or commission,” Domb said. “It’s not only cutting off people’s ability and capacity to participate. It’s reducing what government gets from Western Massachusetts and the Cape. Not just the regional perspective but the human perspective, the experience, the expertise of hundreds of thousands of people who live outside 495.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold hardship, one silver lining for many state and local officials was the marked uptick in public participation in government. Now, lawmakers will consider whether to make remote participation in public meetings a permanent feature of civic life.
The Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight on Wednesday held a virtual hearing on several bills that would create ways for state and local officials to participate in meetings remotely and for the public to engage in meetings remotely. There was widespread support for the concept of allowing remote participation, as speakers stressed the opportunities it allows for more diverse participation – whether by parents of young children or people with disabilities. Yet at the same time, several speakers raised potential pitfalls that need to be addressed.
Carrie Benedon, director of the division of open government in Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, noted that bills that would allow for entirely remote meetings exclude participation by people who cannot access the internet. “We all know from experience that too often technology doesn’t work perfectly, and it’s not equally available for all members of the public,” Benedon said, urging lawmakers to include a requirement that there be some physical meeting location where the public can participate and interact with a representative of the body that is holding the meeting.
One theme that emerged throughout the testimony was the enormous increase in participation in government during the pandemic, and the diversity of who can participate when access is made easier.
Sarah MacDonald, vice chair of the Dedham select board, said the town was beginning to develop its next 10-year master plan when the pandemic hit. The select board held meetings, visioning sessions, and open houses online. It attracted 2,400 participants, or 17 percent of Dedham’s households, far surpassing public participation in any earlier in-person government meetings.
McDonald said attendees were more diverse than any she had seen before, and included parents listening while making dinner, and senior living residents who would never drive to town hall at night. As a result, she said, “Residents pushed us to think deeper and more creatively about the future of the town.”
Jon Magee, an advocate with A Greenfield People’s Budget, which has been organizing around community-based public safety solutions, said as the parent of a young child, he was able to participate in public meetings this year only because they were online. “Our evenings are totally full for my family between dinner, bath, getting ready for next day,” Magee said. “If I had to leave the house to participate in public meetings, that simply wouldn’t happen.”
Dianna Hu, chairperson of the Boston Center for Independent Living and a software engineer at Google who uses a motorized wheelchair, said allowing public access to remote meetings is more than a convenience, it is a civil rights issue for people with disabilities. Hu said disability advocates have been asking for remote meeting access for years, but the pandemic suddenly made people understand what inaccessibility means. She said remote participation needs to become the latest form of a universal accommodation, just like curb cuts and closed captioning.
State Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat and the mother of young children, said the pandemic shined light on what many people already knew: Groups of people were being underrepresented at or absent from public meetings. These include people with disabilities or other physical ailments, parents of young children, people caring for older family members, and people working night jobs.
“We all face systemic barriers to entry in participation in local government,” Rausch said. “This is an equity issue.” Rausch said it is a good thing that participation in government has gone up during the pandemic, with more diverse voices being represented in meetings.
However, some warned that there are also downsides to fully remote meetings. Several speakers urged a move toward a hybrid model, where meetings are in person but remote participation is allowed.
Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said while he supports continuing to have remote access, which has made meetings more accessible to the press and public, he believes there also needs to be some physical meeting location. “My feeling is that much has been lost in purely remote meetings and will continue to be lost if we make this permanent,” Ambrogi said.
For example, some people do not have reliable internet access. While reporters can attend meetings remotely, they lose the opportunity to go up to elected officials after a meeting and ask them questions. The public also does not know if officials participating in a virtual meeting are texting or emailing each other privately during the meeting, which would be more obvious if they were sitting at a table.
There was some debate over whether to allow municipalities to apply for a hardship waiver, if a bill requires local government to allow remote meeting access, since municipalities all have different levels of technology infrastructure. There was discussion over whether people watching a meeting remotely should be required to identify themselves, and what standards should apply to public access to documents that are considered at a remote meetings.
One proposed bill would allow remote participants to count in a quorum for statewide appointed bodies – like the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women – but not for municipal government. The bill’s sponsors suggested this might be a simpler bill to pass than one affecting all municipal governments, since town and city governments have diverse needs.
Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, said she sponsored the bill after finding for years that it was impossible to get people from the Berkshires or outer Cape Cod to sit on statewide commissions because of the difficulties of driving to Boston. “When the world turned upside down in March 2020, we realized it just wasn’t that hard to accomplish those things,” she said.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order allowing fully remote public meetings as long as there is a provision for public access, expires June 15 with the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency. Baker has proposed passing a short-term extension, through September 1, to give lawmakers time to pass any permanent changes to the open meeting law and to give public bodies time to prepare to return in person.