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Should Virtual Public Comments Continue?

virtualmeetingsThough in person attendance at school board meetings was limited during the pandemic, ironically, it seems that more people became engaged with the administration during the pandemic. Why? Because during virtual meetings they were invited to comment via Zoom. This allowed the community to chime in from home, without sitting for long hours in the Board room, waiting for their turn to speak.

This new protocol served to engage the community, but it often increased the length of Board of Education meetings to the wee hours of the night. So it will be interesting to see whether or not the Board members will allow comments via Zoom to continue.

Now that life is returning to normal, will virtual comments still be permitted? At the Scarsdale School Board meeting on Monday June 21, the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale raised the issue. Currently, the state remains under an executive order that suspends the Open Meetings Law and permits virtual meetings. If this order expires, will community members still have the right to call in to comment?

According to League President Alissa Baum, the law is silent on this issue. It does not permit or bar virtual comments. It is the League’s view that virtual comments should still be permitted, even after the executive order expires as it increases community engagement.

According to Baum, State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin has introduced a bill to permit comments “by any means.”

Here are her comments from the Board meeting:

“At the May 24 School Board meeting, the League asked whether the Board would continue the use of virtual public comment after Governor Cuomo’s executive order suspending the Open Meetings Law expires and school board meetings are again conducted in person without social distancing requirements. The Board stated that it was advised by its counsel that this was not permitted under the law.

One of the League’s central missions is to promote the public’s active participation in government. The League has recognized and supported the School Board’s efforts to increase accessibility to the community through its coffees, listening sessions, and attendance at community events. Maintaining virtual public comment is one more avenue through which the School Board can broaden the public’s access to and participation in School Board meetings.

The Open Meetings Law is silent with respect to public participation. The law requires that the government’s business occurs in public, so that voters can see their officials’ deliberations and resulting actions. In that same spirit of openness, the School Board’s policies allow in-person public comment and recognize the importance of community involvement in its decision-making process. It is the view of the League Board that there is no legal reason to discontinue the use of virtual public comment, simply because it is virtual in nature. In fact, if the School Board seeks to uphold the spirit of the law, virtual public comment should be allowed, as it provides to those community members who might otherwise not be able to attend meetings the opportunity to remain engaged with the school district.

The League reached out to NY Assemblywoman Amy Paulin’s office on this issue. Her staff explained that it could not give legal advice, however, because the Open Meetings Law is silent as to public comment, Assemblywoman Paulin has introduced a bill (A. 6863) to amend the Open Meetings Law. This bill, if passed, would add language to clarify that “any meeting of a public body that is open to the public that allows for public comment shall provide for an opportunity for the public to comment in real time by any available means during the time allocated for public comment.”

This past year has seen a dramatic increase in public engagement with the School Board for a multitude of reasons. Vigorous public engagement is key to a well-functioning Board, and any allowable measures that support community engagement should be maintained. We urge the School Board to revisit this issue so that virtual public comment may continue. Thank you for your consideration."

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