PROVIDENCE — Over the past year, Ramona Santos Torres has been focused on crucial questions about the Providence public schools, including when school buildings would reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
During that time, she has been able to participate in public meetings by simply logging onto her home computer and watching a livestream.
Along the way, she said, one lesson has become very clear: Once the pandemic is over, public bodies should continue livestreaming public meetings, expanding access and providing translation services for those who speak Spanish and other languages.
“Now, more than ever, the access to public meetings and the ability to testify is essential,” said Santos Torres, co-founder and executive director of Parents Leading for Educational Equity, a parent-led group that advocates for “access to a high-quality public school for all children of color.”
“Everyone has a right to know and understand what is happening in our schools,” she said. “Look at it through a lens of equity.”
On Wednesday, the House Committee on State Government and Elections heard testimony on legislation that would require livestreaming of any open meeting of municipal and state public bodies.
“One good thing that has come out of COVID-19 is that we have massively opened up government,” said House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, who introduced the bill. “We can’t go back.”
Filippi, a Block Island Republican, said he has sponsored the bill for the past five years, and he has always received pushback from opponents who said that the technology wasn’t yet available or that it would cost too much. But now, he said, it’s clear that the technology is available and affordable.
“It’s cheap and everyone is doing it,” Filippi said. “Everyone loves it. Honestly, I think any public body that goes back to the way it was before is going to have some backlash. People will be livid if they turn off the camera.”
Before the pandemic, parents who wanted to attend a meeting of the town council or school committee often had to find a babysitter or leave work early, he said, but livestreaming has allowed many more people to tune into public meetings.
“You can watch a meeting from your kid’s room while they are doing homework, or you can watch in your bathrobe,” Filippi said. “Before, you had to schlep down to town hall and maybe sit in a meeting for four hours to get to your issue.”
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea said she applauds the spirit of Filippi’s bill.
“Increased access to public meetings is always a good thing for Rhode Islanders,” she said. “As a working mom of three, I would certainly find it easier to attend a virtual town council meeting rather than going in-person.”
But, Gorbea said, “The devil is in the details. Making all public meetings in the state available on-demand online would involve storing massive amounts of data, potentially at high cost to the state.“ She said she and her team will continue researching the feasibility of the proposal.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said public bodies have been livestreaming and allowing remote participation during the pandemic in accordance with executive orders issued by the governor. At some point, those orders will not be renewed, and public bodies will be forced to return to in-person meetings, he said.
But Marion noted that Representative Alex D. Marszalkowski, a Cumberland Democrat, has introduced a bill on behalf of the state Department of Business Regulation that would amend the state Open Meetings Act to allow virtual meetings and participation by electronic communication until July 1, 2023.
“Certainly, it appears that public participation has increased because meetings have shifted online,” Marion said. He said he was often one of the only people who would attend state Ethics Commission meetings, but now a couple dozen people might tune in to the livestreams.
“Parents trying to get their kids fed can now show up at a school board meeting remotely without having to hire a babysitter,” Marion said.
And in Central Falls, the school committee has livestreamed meetings while providing a Spanish translation service, he said. “So there are forms of access that are much better, without a doubt,” he said.
But Marion said remote access also raises some concerns.
“We don’t know if there is any sort of bias in who can participate,” he said. “Is it people with better internet access who are tech savvy versus folks who might show up for in person meetings but can’t handle the technology?”
Marion said some public bodies seem to give less weight to testimony provided online than to testimony offered in person. Those testifying remotely are often asked far fewer questions about the points they make, he said.
Also, Common Cause has concerns about allowing public bodies to meet remotely “without guardrails,” Marion said.
For example, the legislation should require that meetings stop if the internet access goes down, he said. “You can’t lock the door to a public meeting, but if the technology fails you are essentially locking the door to a virtual meeting.”
Legislators also need to figure out how to provide public access to documents that would be available if a resident attended a meeting in person, he said. In a livestreamed meeting, he said, “you can’t pick up the packet at the door.”
Santos Torres said she hopes officials will find a way to provide both online and in-person access to public meetings once the pandemic is over.
“Continue to find a way to make it better,” she said. “Take advantage of technology to allow us to communicate with a larger number of people.”