ITHACA, N.Y.—Remote meetings have been earning eye rolls and irritated sighs since their widespread adoption at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as workplaces and public bodies adapted to meet remotely. But despite technical difficulties, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype or even Cisco WebEx have become indispensable tools in the Batbelt of industry, and in the City of Ithaca, where officials are trying to ensure that, at the very least, a hybrid model of meetings can continue. The state of emergency that enables the city’s committees, commissions and Common Council to meet fully remotely is set to expire in the New York State on June 8.
The Common Council meeting on June 1 will be where a law authorizing the use of “videoconferencing for meetings of public bodies” will be considered. While there’s some chance that the version of the law voted on at May 27’s City Administration Committee meeting may be amended, the premise of continuing at least hybrid meetings seems very popular. The committee passed the law onto council in a unanimous vote.
Remote meetings have made the operations of city government more transparent, and accessible, and have reduced the burden on city staff. However, under what the City of Ithaca can legally do, the convenience of remote meetings will belong to everyone aside from the members of decision-making bodies.
In order to comply with New York State’s Open Meetings Law, a majority of an official body needs to be present at a publicly accessible location. Any member of the body not in physical attendance, and attending remotely, would have to meet the legal criteria of an “extraordinary circumstance.”
These would have to be “significant or unexpected.” Examples given in a Memorandum sent to Common Council in May include family emergencies, a severe weather event, a car accident, a medical event or unplanned for caregiving responsibilities.
The only snag with conducting remote meetings is that it will require city staff to manage the remote and technical aspects of pulling the meeting off, as well as manage the physical room the meetings are conducted in.
This may mean some more city resources — aka tax dollars — getting sucked into conducting meetings and some added stress getting put onto the city’s IT Departments, or less overall since city staff regularly present at official meetings and would be able to tune in remotely.
City Attorney Ari Lavine said that he knew many staff members would like to see the hybrid meeting law passed for the latter reason. “Rather than sitting in council chambers for what can be three hours for a two-minute conversation, they can be doing other things,” said Lavine, “Including just getting other work done sitting at their desk somewhere, or putting their kids to bed or eating some dinner, or any number of other things.”
At this point, it seems there’s no going back. When it comes to civic matters, remote meetings have enabled a new standard for public transparency and access.
Correction 06/01/2022: This article originally reported that the state of emergency enabling remote meetings in New York State is set to expire on July 9, instead of June 8.