While the East Hampton Town Board is preparing for a hearing next Thursday on written procedures to make "hybrid" meetings permanent, the East Hampton Town Trustees held a hearing on Monday and afterward unanimously adopted their own written procedures for the use of video conferencing to conduct their meetings.
Changes adopted with New York State's 2022-23 budget made Covid-19 pandemic-era exceptions to New York State's Open Meetings Law permanent, allowing meetings to be held via video conference and the public to participate remotely. In order to do so, however, a county, city, town, or village's governing body must pass a local law, following a public hearing, authorizing the use of video conferencing and establishing written procedures governing member and public attendance that are consistent with state law. Those procedures must ultimately be conspicuously posted on the board's website.
Permanent legislation must ensure that the public and media can directly access government officials in person. The public must also have the opportunity to view and participate in a meeting both in person and via video conferencing in real time.
A minimum number of members must be present in the same physical location or locations where the public can attend in order to fulfill the body's quorum requirement. In the case of the nine-member board of trustees, that would mean a minimum of five members attending in person.
Members of the governing body are to be physically present at meetings unless they are unable to be due to a specific list of extenuating circumstances. In the case of the town board, those circumstances include disability, illness or medical condition, caregiving responsibilities, scheduled events which cannot be rescheduled or for which rescheduling would result in significant economic expense, or "any other significant or unexpected factor or event which precludes a member's physical attendance at such meeting."
Virtual attendance was the only hitch in the discussion at the trustees' meeting on Monday. The trustees' resolution initially said that trustees can attend a meeting via video conference only under " 'extraordinary circumstances' such as: disability, illness, caregiving responsibilities, other unexpected factor precluding attendance."
Some of the seven trustees present at Monday's meeting expressed a concern that the ability to attend a meeting remotely encourages abuse of the provision. Traveling while on vacation, for example, should not constitute an extraordinary circumstance, said Francis Bock, the trustees' clerk.
The state guidelines are silent as to whether a board member has the right to vote while attending a meeting virtually, said Christopher Carillo, the trustees' attorney. But, he added, "virtual attendance" implies the rights a trustee ordinarily has. The policy to be adopted, he told the trustees at their meeting on April 25, should not be a "free pass" to forgo physical attendance.
Ultimately, Mr. Carillo added two words to the resolution's clause regarding circumstances under which a trustee could attend a meeting virtually. Extraordinary circumstances are now defined as "disability, illness, caregiving responsibilities," or "other significant or unexpected factor precluding attendance."
Under the legislation adopted by the trustees and being considered by the town board, members of the public body must be heard, seen, and identified during meetings, especially when any matter is being formally discussed and/or voted upon. Minutes of any meetings involving video conferencing must include which, if any, members participated remotely. Meetings using video conferencing must be recorded, with recordings posted or linked on the town or trustees' website within five business days and remaining available for at least five years thereafter.
According to the trustees' legislation, minutes of a hybrid meeting must identify the names of members who participated remotely and those who participated physically in person. The public notice of the meeting must inform the public where to view and participate in the meeting virtually, where to participate and attend physically, and where records will be made available.
Transcriptions of public meetings must be made available on request, and video conferencing must use technology consistent with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
The town board's hearing on the hybrid meeting procedures will be held during its 11 a.m. meeting next Thursday, and comments can be made in person, virtually, or in writing.