WESTFORD — Since the start of the pandemic, local governing bodies have been authorized to host remote meetings with no in-person participation. Now, with the looming expiration of a COVID-era policy, some boards may be forced to immediately transition back to in-person meetings.
Sections of Open Meeting Law 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 is expected to expire on July 15. Legislation is pending in both chambers to temporarily extend these measures.
Legislation in the Senate would extend these measures until Dec. 15, 2023, while legislation in the House would extend these measures until March 31, 2023 and amend the Open Meeting Law to require public bodies to permanently conduct hybrid meetings. Both chambers will have to reconcile these bills before Friday, July 15 in order to public bodies to continue to meet virtually.
Westford boards prepare for change
The Select Board, which has met virtually since 2020, may move back to in-person meetings if the legislature does not reconcile both bills before their next meeting on Tuesday, July 26.
“We will follow the state regulations. We really have no choice but to do so,” Town Manager Jodi Ross wrote in a statement to WestfordCAT.
Other boards, such as the Board of Health and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee have continued to meet virtually.
However, 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.
Advocates push for extension
The League of Women Voters in Westford voiced support for the House bill, which would require communities to host hybrid meetings after March 31, 2023.
“We support that because it increases access to the meetings,” League of Women Voters of Westford Spokeswoman Laura Dickey told WestfordCAT. “They’ve seen the participation increases. It’s something we’d like to see passed. Ultimately the hybrid is the best solution.”
Advocates believe allowing a hybrid option has lowered longstanding barriers for individuals with disabilities and limited access to transportation. This, they believe, has increased participation in public meetings.
Both chambers have until Friday, July 15 to reconcile both bills before these temporary measures expire.
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