PROVIDENCE — Open government groups are criticizing a bill that would allow public bodies to continue meeting remotely – via Zoom or by phone – for two more years.
Under executive orders issued by the governor, Rhode Island has been allowing public bodies to meet remotely during the pandemic. But on Tuesday a House committee will consider a bill that would amend the state Open Meetings Act to give public bodies the option of holding in-person, virtual, or hybrid meetings, through July 1, 2023.
“It’s troubling for a number of reasons,” Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said Monday. “We don’t believe that public bodies should spend the next two years being able to meet remotely and use the pandemic as an excuse for doing that.”
Allowing the public to view meetings through Zoom is a valuable practice that should continue, advocates say. But something significant is lost when public bodies meet remotely, Brown said, and elected officials in particular should meet in person so members of the public can address them directly.
“As this bill is worded, for next two years elected officials could hide behind their phones in holding public meetings,” Brown said. “And that is unacceptable from our perspective.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the bill aims to provide a transition out of the pandemic while offering the General Assembly time to come up with a permanent policy. But he argued that the “sunset” for the changes should be one year rather than two.
He noted that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker recently extended emergency measures, including suspension of open meeting law requirements – but only through April 1, 2022.
By contrast, the Rhode Island legislation “would allow fully virtual meetings to occur for a full two years, and we are very concerned that in that time bad practices will become the norm, and the Open Meetings Act – one of the pillars of open government in the state – will be undermined,” Marion said.
When public bodies meet remotely, a form of accountability is lost because the public and the press can’t get the sort of access they had prior to the pandemic, he said.
“You can get a lot of people to log into Zoom, but it’s different than a packed room with a lot of people holding signs,” Marion said. “And there’s no more press scrum where members of the public body are held accountable for the decisions they are making.”
The legislation was introduced on behalf of the state Department of Business Regulation, and on Monday DBR spokesman Brian Hodge said that while Massachusetts extended its executive orders, the Rhode Island bill would go further than what Massachusetts is doing.
Hodge noted that the Rhode Island legislation would impact 3,800 public bodies, and he said it aims to balance the interests of a range of public entities of different sizes. “We don’t want to overly burden the various public boards,” he said.
During a hearing last week, DBR director Elizabeth M. Tanner said the department had been working with state and municipal officials and good government groups to come up with compromise legislation. “This is a bill that nobody loves and nobody hates,” she said, “and that’s when you know it’s usually pretty good legislation.”
Tanner defended the two-year sunset provision, saying, “Every government on the planet is trying to figure this out. That’s why the sunset is a good idea. It forces us to analyze what is working and not working and allows us to make appropriate changes once we know.”
The bill would provide a transition from the executive orders issued during the pandemic to an Open Meetings Act “that starts to embrace technology and allows municipal governments and other public bodies to get used to this new world,” Tanner said.
Tanner agreed that the easiest way to hold public meetings is in person, and she expects most public bodies to do that as soon as possible. But she said the new rules have to work for all public entities, not just high-profile panels. “So if the Bristol Fourth of July Parade Committee wants to meet virtually in January, they should be permitted to do so,” she said.
New England First Amendment Coalition executive director Justin Silverman said the group welcomes the chance to expand public access to government through technology, but it “strongly opposes” many of the changes proposed in this bill.
The main concern is that the bill allows all public bodies to meet exclusively online, Silverman wrote in a June 14 letter to legislators.
“With this legislation, members of these bodies can avoid directly facing journalists and other citizens before, during, and after meetings,” he wrote. “This legislation prevents that accessibility — and the accountability that comes with public access and oversight.”
Over the past 16 months, Rhode Island has seen that remote meetings can boost public participation but also allow public bodies to evade scrutiny, Silverman said.
For example, he said, the Providence City Council Finance Committee approved a $511 million budget in April, but the budget was not posted online or otherwise publicly available prior to its passage. And since the committee met exclusively online, there was no opportunity for journalists or other members of the public to demand the documents during the meeting, he said.
Brown noted that members of public bodies are not required to show themselves during Zoom meetings. “So they can keep their cameras off, doing crossword puzzles for two hours, and no one would be the wiser,” he said.
Also, Brown said that while public bodies have to record remote meetings, the bill would give them up to 30 days to release the recording to the public. “And even more concerning, it would give the public body the right to destroy the recording after 200 days,” he said.
The House Committee on State Government and Elections is scheduled to take up the bill on Tuesday evening, following the full House session.