One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has demonstrated — out of necessity — that public meetings do not need to be held exclusively in one physical location.
And if we have decided that making meetings themselves more accessible is a good thing, why not also make the records of those meetings more accessible, too?
That is the thinking behind Town Meeting Articles 51 and 52, sponsored by resident Lynn Nadeau.
As it had been written initially, Article 51 would have required 10 town boards, including the Select Board and School Committee, to record their meetings and make either those recordings and/or the transcripts of them, along with the official minutes, “easily accessible” on the town website.
Meanwhile, Article 52 seeks to ensure the use of hybrid meeting platforms or remote platforms for all members of those same 10 boards, along with members of the public. Technically, the boards would have been committed to “fully implement best practices related to 940 CMR 29.10 of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law governing remote participation.”
But as at least one other article sponsor has been informed by town counsel, Nadeau has been told that Town Meeting, as the town’s legislative arm, cannot officially bind these boards to comply.
Instead, Nadeau’s proposal under Article 51 has been amended to “urge” all board and committees subject to the Open Meeting Law to use their best efforts to comply with the spirit of the proposal, which is the creation of an avenue for any interested resident to review an official record of what happened at a particular meeting when it is convenient for them.
With Article 52, there was an additional obstacle: Not all of the spaces where Marblehead public meetings are held are conducive to hosting remote or hybrid meetings from a technological perspective.
“We have to build up some infrastructure, we have to buy equipment, we have to do some configurations of buildings to make the meeting spaces more user friendly,” Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer told the Current.
For now, a proposal to fund the upgrades to town buildings to make the hybrid meeting option more widely available is not on the table.
At the May 1 Town Meeting, voters will merely be sending a message, which Nadeau is fine with.
“Whether it was binding and required seemed, in a way, less important than for the town to vote unanimously that this is what we want,” Nadeau told the audience at a recent League of Women Voters forum. “Then our town government would have to listen to that.”
The subject of remote and hybrid local meetings also continues to be the subject of discussion on Beacon Hill. Back on March 29, Gov. Maura Healey signed into law a supplemental budget bill which, among other things, extended through March 31, 2025, the temporary Open Meeting Law provisions that have been allowing public bodies to hold meetings remotely without a quorum physically present at a meeting location.
Under those provisions, boards and commissions must provide “adequate, alternative” access to those meetings when meeting remotely.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight also has before it various iterations of bills that would make hybrid meetings a more permanent part of the local governance landscape.