Remote participation at public meetings no longer within reach

The town, county and school district abandoned most remote commenting options


On March 13, 2020, former Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order No. 202.1 to temporarily suspend Open Meetings Law to allow public bodies to meet remotely and take action without the public being physically present at the meeting due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Even though the suspension did not require remote audience participation, the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and the Baldwin School District allowed for the first time for the public to interact with the officials remotely in livestreamed meetings.

Nassau County conducted their meetings with limited in-person capacity, as long as they followed Covid-19 precautions, including social distancing protocols and an option for remote public comments through email, which would be included in the formal records of the meeting.

The Town of Hempstead also adopted a hybrid meeting format, in which the officials and public were allowed to attend and participate in-person; however, remote participation was made more dynamic as the public could call in to comment through GoTo Webinar.

The Baldwin school district went completely remote with their Board meetings—the public was allowed to attend and participate in meetings via Zoom, a complete departure from pre-Covid meetings that were exclusively in person in school grounds.

Executive Order No. 202.1 expired on June 15, 2021, which then required in-person meetings to resume because “The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants.” However, Baldwin public bodies have adopted pandemic technology for post-pandemic times with a varying range of remote participation.

Nassau County meetings did not change much after the expiration of the executive order, excepting for more relaxed in-person Covid-19 precautions, allowing for more people to attend. They still offer remote participation through email and livestreaming, plus archived agendas and minutes for reference.

The Town of Hempstead also continues to livestream their meetings, which are instantly archived for later viewing; however, they jettisoned remote public participation through GoTo Webinar, limiting public comments only for those who attend in person their Town Board and Board of Zoning Appeals meetings, which have been recently scheduled on weekday mornings or early afternoons.

Like the Town of Hempstead, The Baldwin school no longer offers a remote participation option. The district resumed their in-person meetings for both the officials and the public, which are livestreamed and archived for later viewing. District Clerk Pamela Pratt stated to the Herald, “The executive order allowing for remote meetings expired.”

On Monday, Aug. 31, the district held a special meeting in which they read and voted on a revised Public Participation at Board Meetings policy. Among the changes were limiting public participation from two 30-minute periods to one, although the Board may at their discretion allow for an additional comment period at the end.

Baldwinites, however, seem partial towards allowing for remote public participation. Valerie Beaudry Geasor took to social media to share how, even post-Covid, remote options can be beneficial to certain groups of people, “A remote option would allow seniors that may not a have a ride, a parent with young children that can watch from home, a disabled person, etc.”

Other residents questioned whether the amount of resources that would take to implement a hybrid option would be worth it for these public bodies. Nonetheless, other towns and organizations have found ways to implement remote participation.

For example, Valley Stream Trustee Vincent Grasso said to the Herald that they hold Board meetings in-person and via Zoom, which poses no unforeseen difficulties. When asked about whether this was costly to the village, Grasso responded, “No, we utilized technology that we already had.”