As we look back on the hellish year gone by, it’s also time to sort through those changes worth keeping, those things that actually made improvements in our lives.
And those changes don’t begin and end with to-go cocktails — as much fun as they were. One of the best things to come out of the pandemic lockdown was the way most government bodies from Beacon Hill committees to municipal boards and commissions adapted, allowing their own members and members of the public to attend meetings remotely — from the comfort and safety of their homes.
Computer screens became that critical window on the political world that allowed the public to tune in to legislative committee hearings on crucial issues, city council hearings, town meetings. And not merely to tune in, in many of those cases, but also to offer remote testimony. Distance or disability was no longer a factor. Nor was the inability to get a babysitter or reluctance to make the hours-long trek from Pittsfield to Boston.
This boon not merely to convenience but to government transparency must not be lost as this state and its public bodies return to something approaching normal. The Globe editorial board argued just recently that remote meetings should remain an option — but in many cases, the state can go a step further and make some form of remote access an explicit requirement.
Start with Beacon Hill itself. The Legislature, which operates under its own rules unhampered by the Open Meeting Law, has in some ways adapted admirably — providing remote access to committee hearings. In some (but not all) cases, committees have made written testimony publicly available. It would be unfortunate to see that newfound access disappear.
For those entities that are subject to the open meetings law, several bills filed this year — and already given their remote hearing — would keep the best of what Massachusetts residents have come to expect of their other political entities, updating the law to require that certain public bodies continue to provide “adequate, alternative means of public access” and “effective remote access” to meetings long after the state of emergency is lifted. It would also require a way to provide remote “active, real-time participation by members of the public” if that is already a requirement of in-person sessions.
Legislation to extend the ability of public bodies to use remote technology, but not to require it, through April 1, 2022, was signed by the governor last week.
Mindful of the benefits of maintaining an in-person presence, too, the proposed new law would also require that “all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public in a public place that is open and physically accessible to the public, . .” making it clear that once life has returned to normal, so must the business of doing the people’s business in person and in public.
The legislation filed by Representative Denise Garlick and Senator Jason Lewis not only has the support of some 60 of their colleagues but also of a coalition of advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition and several disability rights groups.
“Last year saw the majority of buildings and venues becoming inaccessible to society at large — and suddenly there was this universal understanding of what inaccessibility meant, whether in the context of a disability or a raging global pandemic,” said Dianna Hu, chairperson of the Boston Center for Independent Living in a statement. “Remote participation is the latest manifestation of universal design — alongside curb cuts, elevators, closed captioning, audiobooks, and other accessibility features that expanded to universal popularity. We now have a remarkable opportunity to not only uphold but to also optimize accessibility, making remote participation a curb cut 2.0 for the modern day and age.”
A remote option can coexist perfectly well with in-person meetings. After all, Zoom — and its remote technology cousins like Facebook Live and YouTube Live — will never be a complete substitute for the real thing, especially for journalists, as Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this month.
“Yes, they can see them on a Zoom, but no, they cannot walk up to them afterward, engage with them and talk to them and converse with them in that way,” he said.
But “there is no reason to move backwards from this new era of public access,” he added in a statement later.
No reason at all — and every reason to preserve this newfound means of making government more transparent and more accessible.
There was a time when what should be “the people’s business” was too often conducted in smoke-filled rooms. Well, the smoke may have cleared, but the requirements of the Open Meeting Law remain a source of frequent tugging and pulling. Adding a new level of transparency is long overdue. Now it can be a rare pandemic bonus.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.