Zoom Be-Gone (or maybe not)

Does your room look like this? A random talking head zooming MSNBC. But note the spotlights reflecting on the picture. Been there.

Posted by Robert Lynch, June 25, 2021

If you needed solid evidence that Governor Cuomo wants the COVID-19 pandemic swept from our consciousness like dust bunnies from behind the couch, well ahead of his hoped-for reelection, you need look no farther than to our Governor’s hastily-made—and insufficiently-telegraphed—Executive Order of today.  And because every local municipal official was left flat-footed by Executive Order 210, those multi-tiled, Town Board zoom meetings—that some love, but others (like me) hate—all must quickly come to an end.  How soon?   Oh, by the way, we’re told, end them immediately!

But wait…. Even though some of us hate having all residents of Enfield invade our visually unkempt living rooms each second Wednesday only to watch this Councilperson attempt to prevent his pet cat from performing ballet on his keyboard, a few select leaders among us love the opportunity to untether themselves from what for us is our white stucco-faced meeting quarters one floor up from the Food Pantry.  And for those favoring freedom over formality, the Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) Thursday offered just the remedy they crave: the prospect, potentially, of zoom meetings forever.  Good Grief!

But first things first:  On March 12th of last year, as the coronavirus was flooding downstate intensive care wards faster than gypsy moths are now devouring my oak trees and while nursing homes were turning into death chambers, Governor Cuomo ordered his first sweeping suspension of laws.  Executive Order 202.1, in part, suspended Article 7 of the Public Officers Law, including the sections that mandated that municipal governments meet in person and that members of the public be given the right to attend. 

By gubernatorial edict, Cuomo allowed municipal meetings “to be held remotely by conference call or similar service, provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”

Within days, our take-charge, COVID-cautious then-Supervisor, Beth McGee, took Enfield matters into her own hands.  On March 17th, she shuttered the Town Hall and quickly shunted public meetings—our next Town Board conclave was set for April 8th—to a zoom platform.  Beth just did it.  I, as Town Councilperson, never recall ever being asked. But then, well, you know.

As the virus ebbed and flowed throughout the Empire State during the subsequent 15 months, the zoom-friendly executive order remained in good standing, renewed by the Governor each 30 days as State law demanded its validity required.  Cuomo’s latest extension in Open Meetings mandates was set to expire July 5th.  But with each passing 30 days, the Governor’s commitment to those extensions grew ever more tenuous.

“I’m willing to roll the dice and assume the July 5th deadline will be extended, then scurry to meet in-person should it not be,” I wrote now-Supervisor Stephanie Redmond in a June 17th email, after I’d heard our County Administration warn that the waivers might end after Independence Day. “I’ll take that risk,” I told the Board.  Good thing I don’t play the ponies.

Thursday, June 24th, we, Tompkins County’s municipal representatives, met in TCCOG. Matter of factly, Acting County Administrator Lisa Holmes broke the news.  The Executive Orders are being lifted.  The open meetings exemptions are ending.  In-person sessions must resume, effective (yes!) tomorrow, Friday.  One day’s notice from our State’s Executive.  So much for Independence Day.

During the pandemic, we in Enfield commissioned installation of a hybrid set-up that would marry online attendance with the real thing.  Its first test will likely come July 7th with Enfield’s Planning Board; then one week later with our Town Board.  How well will it work?  We make no guarantees.  We haven’t “smoke-tested” it yet.  Our Board may attempt a trial run within days.  Wish us luck.


Now, to the second part of this story:  Two months ago, a few of us on TCCOG suggested a relaxation of the Public Officers Law, purportedly to update it to match the world of Bill Gates’ invention.  I was not among them.  And the breadth of reforms sought depended somewhat on whom you asked. 

But the central complaint surrounded one particular clause that states that “A public body that uses videoconferencing to conduct its meetings shall provide an opportunity for the public to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates.”

As Newfield Town Clerk Karen Kenerson would later Thursday evening advise her own Town Board, if a Board member were to teleconference from Albuquerque, she, Kenerson, would need to post in advance that wayward member’s location both locally and in New Mexico.  With COVID-era waivers jettisoned, the rule, if enforced, would make online meetings impractical.  And even were legislators zooming locally, the measure’s supporters maintained they’d rather not have strangers invading their living rooms so as to “attend, listen and observe.”

Where we used to meet… and will meet again.

Read literally, however, TCCOG’s Resolution Thursday—and it passed—would enable a municipal board, should it choose, to have all of its members stationed at remote locations, and do so for every meeting it held.  The Resolution urges “the codification of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.1” by state lawmakers to enable remote meetings. And it would “strike the requirement of public in-person access to every site where a member of a public body may participate in a remote meeting,” so long as the public could attend “either remotely or at a predetermined, public location where members are present in-person….”

How many members must be present there?  Any?  And should remote access be provided the public, it would appear no meeting room need be provided at all.  See where this is all heading?  I thought I knew.  So I spoke up:

“As you might know, there’s a lot of constituent distrust in Enfield.  We’ve had a lot of controversies where the constituents in many cases do not trust the judgment of the Town Board to do the right thing.  And what constituents are telling me door-to-door is that they want to see all the Board members in the same room. They want to see their body language.  They want to see their interaction.  And they think that perhaps if all Board members are in the same room and invading each other’s comfort zone there may be a little less animosity, a little less infighting, and a little less arrogance.”

I proposed an amendment requiring that at least a quorum of Board members meet in person at that “predetermined public location.”  The City of Ithaca’s George McGonigal seconded my amendment, observing that “a significant number of people don’t have computers” nor access to zoom.  But only I ended up voting for the amendment.  And as a result, only I voted against the un-amended Resolution.  As some wise guy might crack, “What else is new?”

Prevailing arguments Thursday took several paths.  Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart argued that the opportunity for remote access would increase interest in municipal board service.  The Dryden Village’s Michael Murphy said it would give “flexibility” to members out of town, and that even with the law changed, each individual Board could decide itself whether to zoom or not.  Said Murphy, “I kind of like letting the Board decide, not the State.”

Mayor Hart acknowledged he’d crafted an open-ended Resolution so as not to “over-prescribe to the Legislature” and thereby maybe doom the measure’s chances for passage.  Nonetheless, one can argue that under-prescription can prove just as dangerous, as it can tempt lawmakers to wander into the weeds and produce a law far different than what locals had wanted.

But wandering or not, and with Cuomo’s waivers history, the zoom-rooms must close for the moment and the in-person meetings must resume.  TCCOG’s changes can’t take hold until the State Legislature next meets.  And by TCCOG’s best guesses, the summer recess won’t end until perhaps September.

Board members, get used to wearing dress pants to meetings again, not cut-offs.