LANSING, N.Y. –– Lansing’s Town Board passed two resolutions at its August 18 meeting, adapting to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Tompkins County and the spread of the Delta variant of the virus including an update to COVID-19 guidelines for town buildings and a request for a limited suspension of the New York Open Meeting Law requiring in-person meetings.
The update to COVID-19 guidelines comes after Tompkins County issued an advisory for local residents to wear masks while indoors on July 30 despite a state-wide end to the mask mandate. The update encourages residents to wear masks while attending town meetings in person, and observe social distancing by staying at least six feet apart from others until meetings can potentially be moved online. Those who are unable or otherwise not required to wear masks due to their medical status or age are asked to inform the Town Clerk so that reasonable accommodations can be made for them.
Despite these precautions, Lansing’s Town Board is seeking to return to virtual meetings, six weeks after both Lansing and other municipalities such as the City of Ithaca resumed in-person meetings for the first time since the start of the pandemic. According to the Tompkins County website, back then, there were only six active COVID-19 cases in Tompkins County, compared to 131 at the time of this meeting.
Lansing Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne, who has worked as a pharmacist for 39 years and who said he has experience dealing with previous viral outbreaks as SARS and AIDS, said he believes in proactively looking for ways to make meetings safer and collecting more data to inform people’s responses to the pandemic.
“I’m always concerned about these things,” LaVigne said, “but I also have to be prudent, pragmatic, and I have to look at the data, and go from there.”
Other local officials seem to be taking the ongoing pandemic seriously as well ––Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler spoke to the Board at the August meeting, highlighting 35 new COVID-19 cases in a single day in Tompkins County, and 11 people hospitalized at the time. He said Tompkins County had just issued information regarding booster shots, and encouraged residents to visit the county website to learn more.
“I’m hoping that that’s the plateau,” Sigler said, “we’re obviously keeping a close eye on that.”
Nevertheless, New York’s Open Meetings Law requires that public bodies like Lansing’s Town Board and other local governments make their meetings open to the general public, except for executive sessions that involve discussions of private topics such as an individual’s employment history or pending litigation. This law allows for videoconferencing meetings as long as the public can observe the meetings at any location from which a member participates at the meeting, which means that a fully remote Zoom meeting with the Town Board members participating from their own homes, as they did during the pandemic, would not be allowed under the law.
It took Executive Order 202.1 in March 2020 from Andrew Cuomo, the governor at the time, to authorize meetings to be held remotely, with members attending via Zoom or other video meeting services from their homes. Cuomo extended that executive order every month until June 24, when he issued Executive Order 210 to end the state of emergency due to New York having “successfully flattened the curve of COVID-19,” allowing Ithaca and other towns in Tompkins County to resume in-person meetings.
LaVigne is currently looking into other possible ways to make town meetings safer, such as holding virtual meetings with members of the boards in separate rooms in the Town Hall, or having an isolated room for residents to attend meetings without a mask. While these measures can help allay the concerns of residents who are hesitant to attend meetings in person by allowing for more social distancing while keeping the meetings in the Town Hall, that leaves the question of how to ensure the safety of the elected officials who vote on the meetings.
The resolution requests that Kathy C. Hochul, Lieutenant Governor and Governor Designate after Cuomo’s resignation earlier this month, immediately re-impose the executive orders suspending the Open Meetings Law, thus allowing Lansing to resume holding remote meetings. The resolution requests that this last until the Delta Variant and any comparable variants of COVID-19 have been successfully controlled.
LaVigne is grateful to Stephanie Redmond, Supervisor of the town of Enfield, for sending out the first resolution asking for a limited suspension of the Open Meetings Law. Redmond provided Lansing and other towns with a template for their resolutions since Lansing was looking for a similar resolution.
“We (local mayors and supervisors) share information and we share ideas, and this was an excellent idea, and she should get the lion’s share of this credit,” LaVigne said of Redmond. “Because for us, it basically checked off, I believe, most of the boxes we were looking for. You can tell by a 5-0 vote we were all in favor of it.”
While both resolutions passed unanimously, LaVigne does not know whether Hochul will issue an order suspending the Open Meetings Law, since the decision lies in her hands. Nevertheless, he not only hopes that the Open Meetings Law will be suspended, but it will be adjusted to allow for virtual meetings without an executive order suspending the law, since virtual meetings may be “a way of life” necessary to adapt to the pandemic.
“All we can do is share our views, share our recommendations,” LaVigne said, “and the ones that have the power to do that, I hope they do it.”