New Law Authorizes Virtual Option for Public Meetings

Farrell Fritz, P.C.
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On September 2, 2021, Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation (S.50001/A.40001), which includes a number of statutory protections and other emergency public health measures adopted in response to the recent increase in the transmission rates of the COVID-19 Delta variant.  One of the measures effectively suspends provisions of the Open Meetings Law and allows local government meetings that are normally held in person to be held remotely instead.  The new law essentially reinstates the same rules first imposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.1 issued on March 12, 2020.  That Order was extended several times until June 25, 2021, when the State of Emergency ended.

Under Part E of the new law, a public body may meet and take action without permitting in-person access to meetings.  Instead, public bodies are authorized to hold public meetings remotely by conference call or similar service, provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceedings and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.  Meetings can be held either over a video service such as Zoom or by phone.  The new law does not change the requirement that public bodies provide advance notice to the public that a meeting is taking place.  However, the notice for a virtual meeting must inform the public how to access the public meeting.

In a press release issued on the same day that the legislation was signed, Governor Hochul stated:

“Let’s be clear—the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and I’ve heard from government officials across the state who are concerned about the inability of their constituents to access public meetings virtually . . . This commonsense legislation extends a privilege that not only helps New Yorkers participate safely in the political process, but also increases New Yorkers’ access to their government by allowing for more options to view public meetings. This law will continue to bolster the open and transparent style of government that we’re committed to maintaining in the Empire State.”

Unlike during the State of Emergency when in-person public meetings were prohibited by the Executive Order banning large public gatherings, the new legislation gives public bodies the option of holding meetings in-person or virtually.  However, because of the temporary nature of the law, they will only have that option until January 15, 2022, which is the date when the law is set to expire.

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