Without a last-minute agreement between the House and Senate, the authority for public bodies, agencies and commissions to hold their meetings remotely is due to expire at the end of this week, and affected groups are taking note.

“Today is Tuesday, July 12 already. We are holding this meeting virtually, which is actually an important point of procedure because we are looking and hoping for an extension of this platform to continue to be able to hold our public meetings,” Gaming Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said Tuesday as she opened a remote meeting of the commission.

A law that Gov. Charlie Baker signed in February extended until July 15 the authorization for public bodies to provide “adequate, alternative means” of public access to their meetings and for member of those groups to participate in deliberations remotely. Since the start of the pandemic, basically every public body in Massachusetts – the state legislature, legislative committees, executive branch departments and agencies, local boards and more – have offered some form of remote access, which advocates say has improved access for people with disabilities and people who may not be able to travel to attend a meeting in person.

Last week, the House and Senate both passed legislation extending various pandemic-era policies but the two branches differed on how long they would extend them. While the Senate approved an extension until Dec. 15, 2023, the House bill would limit the extensions to March 31, 2023. The House bill also includes language that would make hybrid meetings – in which both meeting participants and public observers can attend either in person or remotely – a permanent and required feature for local, regional and state bodies after the March 31, 2023 expiration.

“There is no reason to move backwards from this new era of public access. Now that we have experienced the benefits of remote access to public meetings, we cannot go back,” Rep. Antonio Cabral said last week.

The two different versions of the policy extensions bill would need to be reconciled, sent to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk and signed in order for public bodies to continue continue to hold virtual or hybrid meetings after Friday. The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which lobbies on behalf of cities and towns, said the policy would “conservatively … impact more than 10,000 local public entities” and made clear it is not a fan of the House requirement that bodies provide virtual access available to the public.

“The MMA has continued to request an extension of remote options for municipalities to ensure continuity of operations as COVID-19 lingers and surges in the community, while allowing municipalities flexibility in determining the remote options that make sense given the timing and resources available,” the organization wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “On numerous occasions, the MMA has testified and communicated our serious concerns about the cost and practicality of mandating hybrid meetings, as the technology and staffing requirements would be prohibitive and extremely burdensome for the overwhelming majority of cities and towns.”

Gaming Commissioner Brad Hill, a former member of the Republican leadership in the Massachusetts House, said Tuesday that he is optimistic that the Legislature will reach some kind of an accord on remote meetings before the Friday deadline.

“And I think the governor is waiting for that bill to come forward as well,” he said.

Remote Meetings At Risk As Friday Deadline Nears

by State House News Service time to read: 2 min