States and cities are moving to make virtual hearings permanent

The interior of the Connecticut state Capitol.

The interior of the Connecticut state Capitol. Getty Images/Walter Bibikow

In the nation's statehouses and city halls, officials want remote meetings to outlast the Covid-19 crisis. Disability advocates are among those who support the idea. Others worry about the loss of in-person interactions and diminished oversight.

Attorney Kathy Flaherty has long been a fixture at the Connecticut state Capitol, but the lobbyist for people living with mental illness hasn’t spent too much time there lately. 

Flaherty struggles with long Covid, and since contracting the coronavirus early in the pandemic, she doesn’t have the energy to wait for hours to testify on bills. Remote hearings have made it easier for her to weigh in on legislation while avoiding the exhausting ordeal of appearing in-person.

“I do better when I’m horizontal,” Flaherty said. “If I’m vertical, which includes sitting in a chair, I just get a whole lot more tired. That’s why I love remote [meetings.]”

The pandemic irrevocably changed the way Americans connect with state and local government. Many public agencies, from municipal boards and commissions to legislatures and state regulators, moved their business online, making it possible for anyone with a smartphone or a computer to interact with government officials.

The shift to remote meetings–or a hybrid system that combines online and in-person access–has been a boon to people with disabilities, working parents and other caregivers, and those without transportation–not to mention the legions of citizens who simply don’t have the time or the desire to spend hours on a weekday afternoon participating in democracy.

But open government advocates worry that virtual meetings, especially those without an in-person component, could lead to less oversight of public officials.

“Some of the advocates within our coalition see this as an opportunity to expand access to [government] and some see it as a challenge,’’ said Todd Fettig, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “While it’s true that you can probably get a bigger audience if you move legislative sessions or community hearings online, there is a lot of concern about the amount of access, in real time, that people have to public officials.”

Now, more than two years into the coronavirus crisis, government officials are wrestling with how to preserve the increased access that remote meetings provide while ensuring transparency and oversight.

In Massachusetts, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would formalize a hybrid model for government hearings, ensuring such a system remains in place after Gov. Charlie Baker’s pandemic-related executive order allowing for remote meetings expires on July 15.

The city of Boston is also weighing a measure to permanently ensure access to virtual hearings.

“Remote participation is not simply about safety or convenience in the midst of a pandemic, but about maintaining equitable and meaningful access,’’ City Councilor Liz Breadon, the measure’s chief sponsor, said in a statement. “This is about setting the standard for how we continue to engage people with disabilities, seniors, people with limited access to transportation, and people with work and family obligations who otherwise would be unable to attend a meeting in person.”

Rick Glassman, director of advocacy at the  Boston-based Disability Law Center, said disability rights groups are “anxious and concerned” that remote access will evaporate post-pandemic.

“There’s a lot of frustration and concern in the disability community that all of the in-roads that have happened since Covid, all of the gains that have been made, are going to become eroded when proceedings go back to being in person,’’ he said.

Glassman cited a legal opinion by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel that state and local boards in Michigan need to provide remote participation options in order to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. 

In order to comply, the remote option must be fully accessible, allowing those who aren’t physically present to participate in public comment and other parts of the meeting, Glassman said.

“For years people with disabilities have been asking for this and were told ‘no, this is impossible.’ 

“Then Covid happened and in the matter of a couple of months, everything moved online. We learned this was not that difficult,’’ Glassman said. “People who were unable to participate in their own state and local government were suddenly able to be active participants and have their voices be heard.’’

Other states have already taken steps to extend the provisions of pandemic-related emergency orders allowing for virtual access to government meetings. In some cases, that means legislative action to change state laws requiring government agencies to meet in public. 

In New York, a provision authorizing local officials to conduct meetings online through 2024 was added to the state budget bill. The measure does not mandate that all local government meetings have a virtual component. But those that do must also provide an in-person option, with a quorum of members present.

“We learned during the pandemic that there’s certainly a benefit to remote meetings and it did allow a lot of people to participate and observe government from home,’’ said Paul Wolf, an attorney and president of the New York Coalition for Open Government.

“But we still miss that face-to-face contact and being able to speak to your elected officials eye-to-eye so the hybrid approach is the best of both worlds. People who want to physically attend a meeting and are able to, can do so, but those who due to work or family commitments aren’t able to attend can watch the meeting live streamed.”

In Connecticut, which has held legislative hearings online throughout the pandemic, the state Senate on Wednesday endorsed a bill that would give local governments the option of meeting remotely. The vote came just days before an emergency order allowing such meetings is set to expire. (The bill has already been approved by the House of Representatives and now moves to Gov. Ned Lamont for consideration.)

Fettig of the Freedom of Information Coalition said he expects state and local governments to continue to refine their approach.

“I don’t know that we’ve discovered the perfect model yet,” Fettig said. “Access to remote meetings is something we’re going to have to appreciate for what it is and what it can be in terms of opening up access for those who might not be able to attend otherwise, but also know that an in-person interaction with a decision-maker is different from an online interaction.”

He added: “It’s just like remote work…it’s not going away.”

Daniela Altimari is a reporter for Route Fifty based in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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