ALBANY — Advocates of open meeting requirements and groups representing local government officials are on opposite sides of Gov. Kathy Hochul's push to allow public boards to meet remotely.

The legislation that eases requirements in the Open Meetings Law emerged as a last-minute addition to the menu of legislation before lawmakers at a special session of the Legislature held Wednesday.

The measure, which was tied to an unrelated proposal that extends an eviction moratorium, allows local governing bodies to set their own policies on whether the public can attend meetings in person.

"Giving local government governments the authority to once again conduct meetings will allow government business to continue while keeping their constituents healthy and safe," said Peter Baynes, director of the New York Conference of Mayors, the lobby arm for the politicians who are the elected heads of city and village governments.

But Susan Lerner, director of of Common Cause New York, said the move would be a setback for citizen participation in their government.

"I'm sure they would all like to be insulated from the public," Lerner said of elected officials. "But that's not the job. The pandemic has been very difficult for everyone. But this is overprotective. It's diametrically opposed to a representative system of government."

According to the state Committee on Open Government, the Public Meetings Law applies to meetings held by the state government and public corporations such as cities, counties, towns, villages and school districts including committees and subcommittees.

Baynes argued that temporarily dropping the requirement that members of the public be allowed to physically attend such meetings is "especially important in light of the emergence of the delta variant and the recent increases in COVID cases across the state."

But others pointed out the state of emergency declared by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expired, and many restrictions on public gatherings have been lifted. Students and teachers are slated to return to physical classrooms next week for instance, with mask and social distancing mandates in place. Last spring, many schools relied on virtual classrooms for instruction.

Meanwhile, Hochul, who contends revamping the Public Meetings Law will expand public access to government sessions by having virtual attendance options, joined several public gatherings over the last week by touring the State Fair, visiting the Saratoga Race Course for the heavily-attended Travers Stakes and showing up at an art festival in Albany.

Under a now expired emergency order, public bodies were allowed to fulfill the requirements of the Open Meetings Law by allowing remote attendance.

David Bliss, chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said he frowns on the idea of keeping New Yorkers from attending government meetings in person.

"I don't think it's necessary to go back to the virtual meetings," Bliss said. "The majority of people now are vaccinated, and I think that is only going to go up. And we have all the precautions in place. I don't think any public meetings have been super-spreaders by any means."

But Jack Marren, president of the New York State Association of Counties, said his group backs the legislation.

"As the governor recently stated, local elected officials from across the state have called for this temporary authority given uncertainties with the delta COVID-19 variant, and we appreciate the governor listening to the concerns of local governments," Marren said in a prepared statement.

Citing the pandemic, Hochul said earlier this week that it was important to have public access at government meetings "but not in person."

"I’ve heard from many, many elected officials across the state, that we need to amend the Open Meetings Law to make meetings more accessible, more safe, including for those with disabilities across the state," she said.

Senate Republicans opposed the special session measures in Wednesday night voting.

State Sen. Pete Oberacker, R-Milford, told CNHI that some communities in his district lack reliable broadband coverage and thus will be "discriminated against" if meeting access is limited to web streaming.

"As we emerge from the COVID pandemic, it is crucial that we fully reopen our state and that includes public government meetings — emphasis on 'public,'" Oberacker said.

The Assembly was continuing to debate bills late Wednesday. But the fact that legislative leaders had already hatched agreements with Hochul going into the session all but guaranteed the measures would be approved.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com

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