scorecardresearch Skip to main content

R.I. bill would allow videoconferencing for advisory boards and remote testimony

“If we want more people to be engaged,” Senator Victoria Gu said, “we need to make it easier for people to fit this into their already hectic and busy lives.”

Senator Victoria Gu, a Charlestown Democrat.Handout

PROVIDENCE — Advisory boards and commissions would be allowed to host meetings via videoconferencing, and residents would be able to testify remotely at a wide variety of local meetings, under proposed changes to Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act.

Representatives Justine A. Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat, and Senator Victoria Gu, a Charlestown Democrat, have introduced the legislation, saying it would make it easier for residents to participate.

“New England is the home of big town hall meetings where neighbors get together to discuss issues that impact our lives,” Gu said. “But if we want more people to be engaged and have a voice in their government, we need to make it easier for people to fit this into their already hectic and busy lives, and we need to make it more accessible for seniors or anyone else who has a hard time getting to the meetings.”


During the pandemic, local government bodies across the state held public meetings on Zoom or other video conferencing software, the sponsors noted. Residents could watch the meetings from home and offer testimony remotely, but now most public bodies have eliminated that option.

“It’s not realistic in today’s day and age, when people are trying to run a business, take care of their kids and handle other obligations, to expect them to attend meetings that can stretch late into the night just to have their voice heard,” Caldwell said. “This bill will improve democratic participation, which will make our state stronger.”

The legislation would allow municipal and state bodies that are advisory-only to host meetings via videoconference, and it would also require town and city councils, school committees, zoning boards, planning boards, and quasi-public entities such as the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority to allow virtual testimony.

A General Assembly news release quoted two supporters of the legislation.


Ramona Santos Torres, executive director of Parents Leading for Educational Equity, said, “Passing this bill would be a big step in the right direction in removing systemic barriers that often prevent parents and caregivers from sharing their experiences and their policy recommendations with state decisionmakers.”

Leanne Barrett, senior policy analyst at Rhode Island KIDS COUNT and coordinator of the RIght from the Start Campaign, said, “During COVID, we had record numbers of parents advocating for their kids because they could watch committee meetings while taking care of babies, supervising homework, cooking dinner or putting kids to bed, then jump in to testify when it was their turn to speak.”

But, she said, “Since things returned to ‘normal,’ we’ve seen participation drop off as many parents and youth struggle with transportation or just can’t find the time to attend long meetings in person with so many other critical responsibilities.”

In an interview, John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, spoke in support of the bill, noting that public bodies such as town councils and school committees would still have to meet in person, but members of purely advisory bodies would be able to participate remotely.

“This is an approach aimed at embracing the use of technology without losing accountability,” he said.

At the same time, he noted, the bill would require town councils, school committees, and other local boards to allow residents to testify remotely if those public bodies are accepting public testimony during a meeting.


“I suspect some cities and towns will say it’s unaffordable or they will need extra staffing to do it, and I expect some fearmongering about how out-of-towners will try to disrupt public meetings,” Marion said. “But this is becoming fairly common. Most other New England states have opened the door to some form of online participation, and government hasn’t come to a screeching halt.”

Under the legislation, all documents that are to be discussed by advisory bodies would have to be posted online with the electronic filing of the notice submitted to the secretary of state’s office.

Marion said the legislation would not apply to the General Assembly because the attorney general’s office has issued an opinion saying the state legislature is not subject to the Open Meetings Act.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.