From Somerville to Pittsfield, government buildings are closed to residents. Public hearings have ground to a halt at the State House. Municipal boards are moving to remote meetings — when they hold them at all.
The expansive effort by government officials to thin crowds and discourage social interaction is designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But it’s had another effect: The traditional ways people get access to their elected officials and hold them to account are disappearing, threatening to drive many core government functions further from public view amid the pandemic.
Public officials are taking cues from an order signed by Governor Charlie Baker, who last week temporarily loosened the state’s 60-year-old open meeting law by stripping away the requirement that state boards, local school committees, and other governmental bodies meet in a public space.
Public officials, should they embrace remote meetings, are directed to provide an “alternative means” of access through live-streaming, videoconferencing, or online posting of meeting transcripts. But that has left towns and cities — many of them cash-strapped or unprepared for the jump to virtual governance — scrambling to provide residents with reliable ways to keep informed as they slam physical doors shut.
“No one is trying to use this to hide anything. It’s more figuring out how to do it,” said Ellen Allen, who chairs the Norwell Board of Selectmen and is an officer of the state’s Select Board Association.
Many committees in Norwell, she said, are simply postponing meetings, and selectmen meetings will still be available on a local television station. “But if we were to have a meeting with something particularly comment-worthy . . . I don’t know," she said. "We’re going to be figuring this out as we go.”
The challenge exists, too, for state government, which has been notoriously slow in embracing new technology. Massachusetts House and Senate leaders have closed the State House to the public, and many public hearings have been postponed. They have also stopped scheduling formal sessions, pushing legislative business into sparsely attended informal gatherings.
Legislative leaders say they’re working out ways to take virtual testimony on bills, and on Tuesday, the House said that, like the Senate, it will begin to live-stream informal sessions for the first time. But any dissent in these settings effectively kills legislation, meaning they’re debate-free, and substantive discussions recede even further from the chamber floor.
Asked Monday if they’d change legislative rules to help usher through bills that Baker has filed to address the spread of the coronavirus, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said people are still encouraged to weigh in by submitting testimony in writing.
“People need to have confidence their government is moving forward, and providing public access is still a requirement under the new order. It’s now more important than ever,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group.
‘People need to have confidence their government is moving forward, and providing public access is still a requirement under the new order. It’s now more important than ever.’
Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts
“The technology is there, it’s easily accessible,” she said. “And there’s really no excuse in this day and age not to use it.”
The Boston City Council on Monday closed its chamber to the public, and hearings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday focusing on the coronavirus were postponed. But the council’s president, Kim Janey, said the goalis to conduct meetings and hearings virtually, starting with what she called a test run with Wednesday’s council meeting.
She said she wants to explore allowing residents to submit audio or video files for testimony at hearings, and for them to feel “as if they’re physically present” at a meeting, even in a virtual setting.
“What I don’t want to do is say to the public ‘Sure, you can participate — but just send us an e-mail,’ ” Janey said. “What this crisis has done, it has made us speed up our timeline for having some of these discussions" about virtual access.
Making the jump isn’t always easy.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said the city is working with LogMeIn Inc. to create webinars with the capacity for up to 2,000 people to participate in, say, a City Council meeting. Given that every government building in the city has closed, such access is crucial, he said. “We want to be visible as much as possible,” he added.
In Conway, officials ordered all of their own offices closed, a first for the Western Massachusetts town, said John O’Rourke, its Select Board chairman. And in Bridgewater, though Town Hall is not open to the public it’s staffed, with officials are warning residents it may take longer than usual to process some requests.
“There is no easy way to say it," Town Manager Michael Dutton said, “but things are going to be different for a little while.”
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which enforces the public meeting law, said it’s trying to ease the transition for public officials by speeding up its responses to questions on its open meeting hotline, from one or two days to a few hours.
It’s also reminding municipalities that many of the open meeting law’s provisions remain in effect, including requirements for at least 48 hours’ notice of meetings and formal agendas and minutes.
And while Baker’s order says that boards and committees “may” post transcripts or recordings of remote meetings if they’re unable to allow the public to follow in real-time, attorneys in Healey’s office say a comprehensive record is not optional in that scenario.
“Cities and towns pride themselves on being closest to the people,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “They’re doing their level best. I think it’s safe to say not only is this unprecedented, but it’s extraordinarily difficult.”
Nonetheless, watchdogs are on alert for any signs public participation is being dramatically curtailed.
“Some government business cannot be postponed indefinitely, and striking a balance between expediency and accountability at this strange moment in time is no easy task,” said Mary Z. Connaughton, director of government transparency at the right-leaning Pioneer Institute.
“The public should take some solace in knowing that once this crisis is over, the watchdogs among us will put these actions under a microscope to be sure officials acted in the people’s best interest.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.