City plans to adopt hybrid meeting model in law
ITHACA, NY—Remote meetings have been drawing prying eyes and irritated sighs since their widespread adoption at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as workplaces and public agencies adapted to meeting remotely. But despite the technical difficulties, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype or even Cisco WebEx have become indispensable tools in the industry’s Batbelt, and in the city of Ithaca, where officials are trying to ensure that at a minimum, a hybrid pattern of meetings can continue. The state of emergency that allows the city’s committees, commissions, and joint council to meet entirely remotely is due to expire in New York state on July 9.
The Municipal Council meeting on June 1 will be the one where a law authorizing the use of “videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies” will be considered. While there is a chance that the version of the law passed at the May 27 city administration committee meeting will be changed, the premise of at least continuing hybrid meetings seems very popular. The committee passed the law in council unanimously.
Remote meetings have made city government operations more transparent and accessible, and lightened the burden on city staff. However, by virtue of what the city of Ithaca can legally do, the convenience of remote meetings will belong to everyone except members of decision-making bodies.
In order to comply with New York State’s open meeting law, the majority of an official body must be present in a place accessible to the public. Any member of the organization who is not physically present and who attends remotely would have to meet the legal criteria of an “extraordinary circumstance”.
These should be “significant or unexpected”. Examples given in a memorandum sent to the common council in May include family emergencies, a severe weather event, a car accident, a medical event or unforeseen care responsibilities.
The only catch with holding meetings remotely is that it will require city staff to manage the remote and technical aspects of arranging the meeting, as well as the physical room in which the meetings take place.
This may mean that more city resources – i.e. taxpayers’ money – are sucked into holding meetings and additional stress is placed on the city’s IT departments, or less overall since city staff are regularly present at official meetings and could connect remotely.
City Attorney Ari Lavine said he knows many staffers would like to see the hybrid meeting law passed for the latter reason. “Rather than sitting in the boardroom for what can be three hours for a two-minute conversation, they can do other things,” Lavine said, “including just doing other work sitting at their desks somewhere. share, or put their children to bed or eat dinner, or any number of other things.
At this point, there seems to be no turning back. When it comes to civic issues, remote meetings have enabled a new standard of transparency and public access.