Omicron is on the rise, but can CB8 stay away? | The Riverdale Press


From ETHAN STARK-MILLER

When Governor Kathy Hochul first took office in September, she focused on the coronavirus delta variant, which is spreading rapidly – and continues to this day.

One of these measures? Expand the ability of government agencies like local councils to meet virtually – at least until we thought we might be out of the woods. Like, for example, at the beginning of next year.

Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, had phased out such a provision, and groups like Community Board 8 were coming out of their summer break and preparing to physically bring people back together while voicing their concerns to Hochul.

Cuomo first signed an executive order suspending the state requirement that government meetings be held in person at the start of the pandemic. Instead, they could meet remotely as long as they livestream the meeting using online video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

Three months later, CB8 is apparently back to where it started, as Hochul’s existing law expires on January 15th after the advent of the Omicron variant – to learn a lot about this new variant.

It would be perfect for them to extend virtual meetings at least beyond spring.

“We have sent a letter to Hochul and the other elected, citing the latest variant, in which we urge the continuation of the waiver of the law on open assemblies in order to enable us to hold our assemblies for the reasons that always exist were there to continue to perform on Zoom, “Spalter said, citing public participation. “And many of our board members are also at risk, in vulnerable categories.”

CB8 also struggled last September to find meeting rooms that allowed adequate social distancing, which Spalter said will re-emerge in January.

“Am I nervous about that?” asked Spalter. “Yeah, I’m nervous about it. Because it will be very difficult for us to arrange personal meetings. “

But Paul Wolf, who leads the advocacy group New York Coalition for Open Government, believes Spalter and others who share concerns about returning to face-to-face meetings needn’t worry. At least in the short term.

“The legislature will only come back to session in January,” Wolf said recently in a forum that examined the return to face-to-face meetings. “You might surprise me, but I doubt they’ll address this issue right away. I think they’ll get the can off the ground and probably extend it until sometime in June. “

That’s because making remote meetings permanent would require lawmakers to completely change New York’s open meeting law, Wolf added.

Before Cuomo suspended the personal requirements in March 2020, it was almost impossible for public authorities to meet virtually, said Wolf. Before the pandemic law, if a board member wanted to attend a meeting from home, they had to open their house to the public.

However, there are many benefits to having board meetings remotely, Wolf said. For example, it seems to increase public participation in meetings as people no longer have to travel to a physical location to attend. In addition, the requirement that a recording and transcript of the meeting be posted online afterwards also increases accessibility.

But for all these advantages, Wolf’s organization still believes that public gatherings shouldn’t be completely remote.

“We prefer a hybrid approach where hopefully you can do both,” he said. “Some people attend and attend in person, and some people attend and attend remotely. I think it’s a real relief for the public to be able to watch meetings at home on their computer. I don’t want them to just go virtual – I think it’s important that the public can be present at these meetings. “

The option of a physical meeting is important, Wolf said, because it is a more effective way to look their elected officials in the eyes and hold them accountable. In addition, it is more difficult for authorities to restrict public comments personally than is the case virtually.

Wolf’s most recent forum also gave time to compare what other states – namely California and Florida – did after the pandemic. Initially, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis both issued executive orders that removed many of the barriers to holding meetings remotely.

David Snyder, executive director of California’s advocacy group First Amendment Coalition, says Newsom’s executive orders removed the requirement that there be physical locations for the public to attend meetings while still allowing public comment. Unlike New York, however, California didn’t have to keep renewing its remote meeting waiver. Because the legislature has passed a law that allows meetings to continue virtually as long as the state of emergency exists.

“Full remote meetings are still allowed,” said Snyder. “And there is no requirement for a physical location where the public can see or listen to the meeting that is being held remotely,” citing a law similar to New York City that prescribes personal options.

While Florida suspended portions of its laws for open sessions that required a physical quorum during the first few months of the pandemic, things have been moving in a different direction since then. Virginia Hamrick, an associate advocate for the First Amendment Foundation, told the forum that DeSantis did not renew its ordinance when it expired in November 2020. Since then, public authorities have met in person.

“We had some problems initially because COVID was still going on,” said Hamrick. “And many board members didn’t want to meet in public. So in December and last winter it was really difficult (with) board members who tried to comply with a lack of the implementing regulation. “

Notwithstanding the long-term changes to New York’s open meeting law, Spalter only hopes the current exemption will be extended until the pandemic is better under control.

“We are in the same situation as we are,” said the CB8 chairman. “We keep our fingers crossed that the waiver will be extended so that we can continue to hold remote meetings. I know the public will be happy with it, and the board will be happy with it. “


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