Groups Mounting Bid to Enshrine Online Meeting Access

Council Decision Cited in Push for Open Meeting Law Amendment

The darkness of the pandemic brought a surprise element of transparency to government, and a range of groups, including those representing individuals with disabilities, this week are calling on the Governor’s Council to resume online streaming of meetings where elected officials vet judicial candidates.

“In the case of government entities based in Boston, like the Governor’s Council, live streaming enables people to tune in from every corner of the state; discontinuing remote access is devastating for regional equity,” eight groups wrote in a letter Thursday that was sent to the eight-member council and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who chairs council meetings where Gov. Charlie Baker’s judicial nominees are considered. “Remote access is the latest instance of universal design — alongside curb cuts, elevators, closed captioning, audiobooks, and other features — that began as accommodations and expanded to universal popularity. Like these innovations and others emerging during the pandemic, remote access to public meetings should become a permanent feature.”

The groups, including the Disability Law Center and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, also sent their letter to House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka since the organizations say they “have teamed up” to support legislation amending the Open Meeting Law “to permanently enable members of the public to access public meetings remotely, in addition to the option of attending in person.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, MassPIRG, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and New England Newspaper and Press Association also signed the letter, delivered as part of “Sunshine Week” efforts to promote open government and access to public information.

The Boston Herald reported earlier this month on the decision to stop streaming Governor’s Council meetings, with officials citing the reopening of the State House to visitors, alleging a lack of resources to handle technology, and Governor’s Councilor Robert Jubinville proclaiming that “the pandemic is over.”

“Eliminating remote participation now shuts the doors on so many who have, for the first time ever, been able to access and engage their government without hindrance or just wanted to learn more about government decisions,” the groups wrote. “Virtual access must be a part of our new normal in a 21st century democracy. The people deserve to know what their government is doing.”

Almost overnight in March of 2020, in-person government meetings largely ceased, and without fanfare there was an immediate shift to online meetings, with livestreams enabling anyone anywhere to easily tune in to meetings that they, up until then, would have needed to physically travel to in order to attend.

The groups argue that remote meetings preserved public bodies’ ability to operate, but also “opened the door to civic engagement for members of the public and many people who had previously been shut out,” including seniors with mobility issues, people with disabilities, parents with young children, people with elder care and adult care responsibilities, people who can’t drive or afford taxis or rideshares, people with chronic medical conditions, and people who just want to know more about their government.

Baker’s office has continued to livestream his major press conferences and announcements, including those that do not take place at the State House, where the Governor’s Council meets. On Thursday, the governor’s team broadcast his announcement of a transportation bond bill from a patch of grass alongside a highway in Worcester.

Through a spokesman, Polito deferred to the council’s judgment on livestreaming their meetings.

Polito chairs the council meetings, is empowered to vote to break ties on the council, and the council’s budget is covered in the governor’s office’s account. A governor’s office staffer had assisted with technical support for the livestreaming, based on decisions made by the council, the spokesman said.

According to council staff, the panel did not take a vote on whether to spike its livestreaming practice but did discuss the matter at an assembly earlier this month. The state Open Meeting Law is “inapplicable” to the Governor’s Council “as a matter of constitutional law,” the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1992.

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