Pandemic-driven changes to Open Meeting Law should be made permanent

Online access to meetings strengthens accountability and equity

WHEN JOURNALIST ALEX NEWMAN didn’t have time to attend a Medford City Council meeting last February, he was able to view an official recording and learn about plans for a controversial school fundraiser. The school would receive some of the proceeds of sales from a food truck company that several city councilors accused of inflating prices and collecting customers’ personal data for marketing purposes.

It’s the type of local story that prior to 2020 might have gone unreported given shrinking community newsrooms and fewer reporters covering municipal meetings. A series of executive orders and state legislative action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though, temporarily required most government bodies to provide remote public access and recordings to their proceedings — an assist, however imperfect, to local journalists and other interested citizens.

“I’ve covered more meetings since COVID than I ever have before,” said Newman, a local reporter for Patch who single-handedly covers Medford, Malden, Somerville, Arlington, and Reading. The municipalities encompass more than 32 total square miles and a quarter-million residents. “I don’t have to drive,” he said. “I can watch the meetings the next day.”

Unless action is taken by April 1 when the Open Meeting Law changes expire, journalists like Newman may again find themselves constrained by the limits of in-person meetings. If so, it’ll be a burden shared by everyone in the Commonwealth.

To understand the benefit of remote access to journalists and the communities they cover, one must first consider the tenuous state of local journalism. The University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media reported that more than 2,000 newspapers across the country have closed since 2004 with nearly 70 daily and weekly newspapers in Massachusetts shutting down between 2004 and 2019. Most recently, the weekly Sun-Advocate, which covered Stoneham and Woburn, closed its doors in August.

Large regional newsrooms such as the Boston Globe, online news media, public broadcasting stations, and neighboring publications help fill the void. Still, local journalism here is threatened by many of the same industry challenges battering newsrooms in other states. That threat led legislators to establish a commission in 2021 to research local journalism in Massachusetts and make recommendations on how the industry can be strengthened.

The commission is a well-intended endeavor. The benefits of robust local journalism are plentiful: less government corruption and municipal mismanagement, increased civic engagement and less partisan polarization, more economic investment and better public health information, among many others. The remote meeting capabilities we now have in place are a means to these ends. The technology helps journalists, particularly those covering multiple towns with little newsroom support, expand their coverage and report about government more efficiently.

Without the ability to attend meetings remotely or view recordings, Newman said, “it would be exceedingly difficult to cover issues with the depth and consistency I’ve been able to during the last couple years.”

For all its open government benefits, however, remote meeting technology can also be used as a shield against scrutiny and public engagement. A survey conducted last year by the Associated Press found that while more public bodies are live-streaming their meetings, it’s becoming more difficult for people to actually speak with their elected officials. Citizens are often prohibited from testifying at remote hearings or they are limited to submitting written testimony.

Fortunately, a solution exists. A plan to make remote access to government meetings permanent and improve the current changes to the Open Meeting Law is now pending in the Legislature. An Act to Modernize Participation in Public Meetings (H.3152/S.2082) will require both remote and in-person access to government proceedings.

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Denise Garlick and Sen. Jason Lewis. It’s endorsed by the New England First Amendment Coalition along with other government transparency advocates such as the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, and Common Cause.

Unlike other bills being proposed, this legislation requires a hybrid format that allows citizens to not only participate in meetings remotely but also attend them in person. This dual access is especially important for journalists who not only need the ability to monitor many meetings from afar, but must also often follow up with public officials after those meetings.

That was the case for Newman and his reporting on the Medford school fundraiser. After his initial story ran, Newman needed additional context that could only be obtained by contacting a city councilor directly and speaking one-on-one. It was a reminder to him that while remote access is critical, it cannot be exclusive. Citizens must be able to meet with public officials in person without mute buttons and “end call” options being used when conversations become contentious.

While local journalists and their audiences will benefit from this hybrid access, so will other groups of citizens such as those with disabilities, with family or work obligations, with limited transportation, or other circumstances making it difficult to attend government meetings in person. From a press perspective, this legislation is about government transparency and accountability. But it’s also about equity and providing access to all citizens.

During the last two years, Newman has noticed more citizen interest in government meetings. Some public bodies have responded by posting agendas and meeting materials online faster than usual, he said. All of this has provided more news for Newman to cover, a task made easier through remote access and recordings.

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“This amount of coverage,” he said, “just wouldn’t be possible if I could only be at one meeting.”

Justin Silverman is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that advocates for press freedoms and open government.