BOSTON (State House News Service) Pointing to sizable growth in community participation over the past two years, municipal officials on Wednesday called on Beacon Hill to allow pandemic-era hybrid and remote meeting options to remain in place permanently.
Lawmakers have already extended provisions allowing public bodies to convene via platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and with the latest allowance set to expire July 15, Lexington Select Board Member Jill Hai cautioned that any lapse would create unnecessary upheaval at the local level.
Hai said during a Local Government Advisory Committee meeting that permanent remote or hybrid options could minimize disruption from a potential future COVID-19 wave or other upheaval such as extreme weather.
"Allowing optional access to remote or hybrid meetings ensures the opportunity for continuity of operation at the municipal level in the face of whatever eventualities arise," Hai said. "We also don't want to lose the access that we have provided to those unable to attend or participate in physical meetings. Many towns are reporting significantly higher participation rates at all levels of public meetings, from boards and committees to Town Meeting."
If state officials move quickly, Hai said, cities and towns could use available American Rescue Plan Act dollars to build out the technical infrastructure necessary for virtual meeting access, a step that may not be "prudent" if the current policy lifts.
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who presided over Wednesday's meeting, called Hai's argument for a permanent option "beautifully said."
Toward the end of Wednesday's meeting, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said any permanent authorization for remote or hybrid meetings would likely need to come from the Legislature, stopping short of endorsing or opposing the idea.
"We do not have executive order to allow that to happen through the governor's actions," Polito said. "But this has been extended before with legislative action, and obviously, that's a process that would need to be developed further in that body before we could consider that at this time."
Written by Chris Lisinski/SHNS