WESTFORD — The legislature has extended emergency provisions allowing government bodies to continue to meet online.
Open Meeting Law provisions suspended
On March 12, 2020, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order suspending sections of the Open Meeting Law. These changes allowed government bodies to provide “adequate, alternative means” for public access as well as allowing boards to host meetings virtually. Normally, boards must host meetings in a location accessible to the public.
On Feb. 15, 2022, Gov. Baker extended these provisions, which expired on July 15. The legislature extended the measure until March 31, 2023, after both chambers were unable to reconcile their legislation.
Legislation in the Senate would have extended these measures until Dec. 15, 2023, while legislation in the House would extended these measures until March 31, 2023 and amend the Open Meeting Law to require public bodies to permanently conduct hybrid meetings.
Legislators extend measures, local officials relieved
The legislature could not reconcile both bills in time for the July 15 deadline, and a temporary measure was passed on July 16 to extend the provisions until March 31, 2023.
Multiple boards have already begun hosting in-person meetings, such as the Conservation Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, which returned in-person in late spring of last year. The Select Board and Board of Health have continued to meet online.
Town Manager Jodi Ross expressed support for the recent extension, citing convenience as boards compete over meeting space.
“Many of our town boards are delighted the State Legislature voted to approve the Remote Meeting Extension Bill so we may retain the option to hold public meetings remotely through March 31, 2023,” she told WestfordCAT in an email. “The convenience of allowing public bodies to meet remotely has helped our approximately 80 plus boards/committees hold numerous public meetings without trying to find limited meeting rooms.”
Ross also cited increase accessibility, as participation from members of the community has increased with increase options for participation.
“This practice has also allowed many more individuals to participate in public meetings from the comfort of their homes,” she said.
Even with increased participation, Ross notes the reduction of in-person meetings has reduced the town’s carbon footprint.
“There has also been a positive impact on our town and Commonwealth’s Sustainability Goals by not requiring every attendee to be driving cars to and from meetings, some many miles away,” she said.
She continued, “I feel this is an essential part of government for now and into the future.”
Stakeholders push for permanent change
The current extension, which expires April 1, 2023, did not include a mandate for permanent hybrid meetings, which was included in the original house bill.
This requirement, advocates say, would be difficult to implement without proper funding.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, an organization representing 351 cities in towns in Massachusetts, worked with lawmakers to remove the requirement.
“The MMA worked with its members and stakeholders across the Commonwealth to clarify that, despite the good intentions of the House bill, such an unfunded mandate presented unworkable financial, technological, logistical, and practical challenges for cities and towns,” the organization wrote in a news release.
Advocates hope to have permanent hybrid and remote access included in a later bill, citing accessibility concerns and increased participation among members of the community.
“The MMA will continue to push for a permanent solution that gives municipalities the flexibility and funding they will need to expand participation and engagement through remote and hybrid meetings,” the organization wrote.
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