MANY BYPRODUCTS of the pandemic cannot disappear too soon – the illness, the social isolation, the toll constant anxiety is taking on our collective mental health. Yet some societal changes have become a silver lining to the pandemic – the realization that some jobs can be done as efficiently at home, the convenience of telehealth, and increased access to government by livestreaming public meetings.
The first real debate about whether to cut off that access has come from the Governor’s Council, the body that vets and confirms judicial nominees.
The State House News Service reported that the Governor’s Council stopped livestreaming its meetings March 2, once the State House reopened to the public. The News Service reported that some councilors blamed the governor’s office, but the governor’s staff said the decision was up to the council. Other councilors said the problem was a lack of staff resources and suggested the public listen to audio recordings of meetings posted by a fathers’ rights advocate. The State House News Service said this week that Councilor Marilyn Devaney moved to restore the livestream, but no one seconded her motion, and Councilor Eileen Duff later told a News Service reporter she thought Devaney was “mentally ill.”
Council histrionics aside, the debate over livestreaming and remote access raises serious questions. Eight groups with an interest in open government, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Disability Law Center, and the New England Newspaper and Press Association, wrote a letter to the Governor’s Council asking them to restore the livestream.
“More transparent and accessible government means a stronger democracy for all,” the groups wrote. “When remote access became a necessity in response to the pandemic, it did not merely preserve public bodies’ ability to operate; it also opened the door to civic engagement for members of the public and many people who had previously been shut out.” For example, they wrote, people with disabilities, people with childcare or elder care responsibilities, people without access to transportation, and immunocompromised individuals can watch a government meeting on livestream more easily than they can attend in person.
“Remote access is the latest instance of universal design—alongside curb cuts, elevators, closed captioning, audiobooks, and other features—that began as accommodations and expanded to universal popularity,” the groups wrote.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who instituted livestreams of his press conferences at the start of the pandemic, plans to continue livestreaming indefinitely for events organized by his office. (The governor often does not have livestreams when he participates in outside organizations’ events, like groundbreakings.) Only reporters who attend in person can ask questions.
The Legislature is also continuing to make remote participation possible. The House has been developing models for hybrid hearings, with some mix of in-person and remote participation by the public and committee members. At a recent meeting of the Commission on the Future of Work, for example, most committee members attended in person but some attended remotely, and the public could attend in person or watch online.
The House and Senate have long livestreamed formal sessions, but the House has also committed to continue livestreaming informal sessions, a practice that began during COVID.
Both the House and Senate plan to allow lawmakers to participate remotely through the end of this legislative session, with formal votes scheduled to end July 31 – even though the House held its first in-person Democratic caucus in two years this week.
Similar questions are playing out in communities.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said communities are “in different places” when it comes to continuing remote access and remote participation in public meetings. Smaller communities expecting small crowds may have returned in person sooner than larger communities. Beckwith said holding hybrid meetings, with remote and in-person participation, is too expensive and technologically advanced for many communities. But he expects remote viewing to become “ubiquitous.” Even pre-pandemic, Beckwith said, many communities streamed meetings on local cable TV channels, but now the popularity and improved technology of livestreaming software could provide less expensive, more convenient alternatives.
The municipal association is asking the Legislature to make permanent a rule that lets municipalities hold remote or hybrid meetings if they choose. Pre-COVID, local officials could call in by telephone but they could not make a motion or count toward a quorum. Beckwith said changing those rules will make communities more pandemic-resilient, allowing them to switch between in-person and remote meetings depending on the public health situation. “It really is an enhancement for government efficiency and for transparency if the remote option continues on a permanent basis,” he said.