Southampton City Council approves measure to continue hybrid public meetings
When Southampton Councilor Rick Martel injured his leg, he was able to attend Southampton City Council meetings from his hospital bed, thanks to the use of Zoom teleconferencing.
“I ended up in hospital for three weeks and ended up in a physical rehabilitation center for a month. If you look at those board meetings, I was zooming in from my bed in the hospital or the nursing home, and I didn’t miss a thing,” he said.
The city councilor spoke last month in favor of a measure, unanimously approved by his colleagues at the city council meeting on May 24, which will allow the continuation of the meetings which will be held with a teleconference component.
Throughout the COVID shutdown, municipal bodies in New York State have been permitted to meet by teleconference, thanks to a relaxation of law restrictions on open meetings and an amendment to the State Public Officials Act designed to ensure continued public participation.
State law passed this year allows so-called “hybrid” meetings — partially in-person, with a Zoom option — to continue through July 1, 2024. The law allows elected officials to participate remotely as well, provided that quorum is present in person at the meeting, in order to maintain public access.
Thanks to this accommodation, public participation has been maintained, and arguably enhanced, throughout the pandemic, Assistant City Attorney Kathleen Murray said, offering a brief description of the legislation.
The municipal law mimics state law, but adds a provision stipulating that public officials must attend meetings in person, unless there are “extraordinary” circumstances, such as a disability, illness or care responsibilities preventing the physical presence of the member. Extraordinary circumstances do not include traffic or conflicting social commitments, the code amendment says.
The Chairman of the Board must be notified at least four hours before the meeting so that there can be a discussion on the existence of a quorum. The president decides if there are extraordinary circumstances.
Local code change relies on state enabling legislation. As such, it could be revised or reversed depending on what state lawmakers do once the current legislation expires in 2024.
There was another reason, unrelated to COVID, for doing this, pointed out supervisor Jay Schneiderman. The use of videoconferencing will allow the participation of citizens with disabilities who would normally not be able to attend in person.
“I love it because of it,” he said.
However, East Quogue’s Michael Tessitore doesn’t like it at all.
Rising to the podium at the public hearing, he called the decision “really ridiculous”.
Painting a picture of lawmakers at home in a hot tub, holding a martini off camera, casting their votes, he said, “You get paid to be here. I am here tonight. I think you should all be here. He felt that “extraordinary circumstances” could be easily circumvented.
The community member also took a dim view of the idea of people from out of town or part-time residents who live in town being able to attend meetings remotely. He favored the idea of speakers showing their driving licenses to prove they live in Southampton and have a vested interest in what is being discussed.
The city council cannot turn down speakers simply because of their pedigree, Murray advised. They are also the public, no matter where they live.
Schneiderman also said he worries about overwhelming out-of-town audiences when controversial topics come up.
Councilor Cynthia McNamara offered a different perspective: She said sometimes people from out of town have expertise in the measures under consideration.
McNamara said she supports the legislation, more for the enhanced public participation component than for her own ability to attend remotely. She doesn’t see herself doing it, but said she’s heard from constituents who may not be able to take the day off to attend multiple hearings, but can tune in during their lunch hours.
She believes that if an elected official abused the Zoom option, it would be seen at the ballot box.
The only other speaker at the hearing was Professor Regina Robin. She said she’s taught up to 40 students online at a time and said, “It’s really, really effective.”