Should remote access to government continue?

Many byproducts of the pandemic cannot disappear too soon – the illness, the social isolation, the toll constant anxiety is taking on our collective mental health. Yet some societal changes have become a silver lining to the pandemic – the realization that some jobs can be done as efficiently at home, the convenience of telehealth, and increased access to government by livestreaming public meetings.

The first real debate about whether to cut off that access has come from the Governor’s Council, the body that vets and confirms judicial nominees.

The State House News Service reported that the Governor’s Council stopped livestreaming its meetings March 2, once the State House reopened to the public. The News Service reported that some councilors blamed the governor’s office, but the governor’s staff said the decision was up to the council. Other councilors said the problem was a lack of staff resources and suggested the public listen to audio recordings of meetings posted by a fathers’ rights advocate. The State House News Service said this week that Councilor Marilyn Devaney moved to restore the livestream, but no one seconded her motion, and Councilor Eileen Duff later told a News Service reporter she thought Devaney was “mentally ill.”

Council histrionics aside, the debate over livestreaming and remote access raises serious questions. Eight groups with an interest in open government, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Disability Law Center, and the New England Newspaper and Press Association, wrote a letter to the Governor’s Council asking them to restore the livestream.

“More transparent and accessible government means a stronger democracy for all,” the groups wrote. “When remote access became a necessity in response to the pandemic, it did not merely preserve public bodies’ ability to operate; it also opened the door to civic engagement for members of the public and many people who had previously been shut out.” For example, they wrote, people with disabilities, people with childcare or elder care responsibilities, people without access to transportation, and immunocompromised individuals can watch a government meeting on livestream more easily than they can attend in person.

“Remote access is the latest instance of universal design—alongside curb cuts, elevators, closed captioning, audiobooks, and other features—that began as accommodations and expanded to universal popularity,” the groups wrote.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who instituted livestreams of his press conferences at the start of the pandemic, plans to continue livestreaming indefinitely for events organized by his office. (The governor often does not have livestreams when he participates in outside organizations’ events, like groundbreakings.) Only reporters who attend in person can ask questions.

The Legislature is also continuing to make remote participation possible. The House has been developing models for hybrid hearings, with some mix of in-person and remote participation by the public and committee members. At a recent meeting of the Commission on the Future of Work, for example, most committee members attended in person but some attended remotely, and the public could attend in person or watch online.

The House and Senate have long livestreamed formal sessions, but the House has also committed to continue livestreaming informal sessions, a practice that began during COVID.

Both the House and Senate plan to allow lawmakers to participate remotely through the end of this legislative session, with formal votes scheduled to end July 31 – even though the House held its first in-person Democratic caucus in two years this week.

Similar questions are playing out in communities.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said communities are “in different places” when it comes to continuing remote access and remote participation in public meetings. Smaller communities expecting small crowds may have returned in person sooner than larger communities. Beckwith said holding hybrid meetings, with remote and in-person participation, is too expensive and technologically advanced for many communities. But he expects remote viewing to become “ubiquitous.” Even pre-pandemic, Beckwith said, many communities streamed meetings on local cable TV channels, but now the popularity and improved technology of livestreaming software could provide less expensive, more convenient alternatives.  

The municipal association is asking the Legislature to make permanent a rule that lets municipalities hold remote or hybrid meetings if they choose. Pre-COVID, local officials could call in by telephone but they could not make a motion or count toward a quorum. Beckwith said changing those rules will make communities more pandemic-resilient, allowing them to switch between in-person and remote meetings depending on the public health situation. “It really is an enhancement for government efficiency and for transparency if the remote option continues on a permanent basis,” he said.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Yuck: Three Walgreens stores in Roxbury and Mattapan were shut down for six days in early March because of serious sanitary code violations, but the pharmacies inside the stores were allowed to remain open so people could get their prescriptions. Read more.

Lepore exiting administration: Kristen Lepore, Gov. Charlie Baker’s chief of staff, is leaving the administration. She is being replaced by Tim Buckley, the governor’s top political advisor. Read more.

More debate wrangling: Attorney General Maura Healey agreed to two debates with her
Democratic rival for governor, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, but only after the state party convention on June 4. Chang-Diaz, who is pressing for three debates prior to the convention, noted Healey favored monthly debates when she first ran for attorney general in 2014. “Our next Democratic nominee must not run away from the issues or their own promises,” she said. Read more.

OPINION

This is interesting: Brian Golden, who heads the Boston Planning and Development Agency, an agency that Mayor Michelle Wu wants to abolish, pens a commentary hailing the fact that Boston was the only US city recognized in the World City Prize competition, which recognizes places that are leading the effort to create sustainable urban communities.

– “In Boston, we’ll stay focused on planning, and shaping the built environment, for a future that benefits all. At the same time, it’s a bit of good news that the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize cited Boston’s ‘visionary and strategic planning’ as worthy of international attention, and emulation, in confronting important 21st century challenges,” Golden wrote.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

State payroll costs are on a sharp incline, increasing by $19 million year over year. (Gloucester Daily Times)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Backlash against Boston’s new outdoor dining rules is spreading beyond the North End, with other restaurant owners saying the new regulations are a costly, bureaucratic morass. (Boston Globe)  

Boston’s chief financial officer, Justin Sterritt, will leave in mid-April for a position in the private sector. (Boston Herald

New Bedford Light columnist Jack Spillane talks development in New Bedford with Mayor Jon Mitchell on The Chat. Mitchell says new waterfront development is needed to help keep the city No. 1 in the country in fishing and No. 1 in the country in offshore wind. Docking space ios key, as he expects Vineyard Wind alone to generate 46 vessel trips a day once construction of the offshore wind farm starts next year.

The Great Barrington Select Board was preparing to vote on a short-term rental bylaw when an anonymous tip came in pointing out that several members of the board had a conflict of interest because they either own short-term rental properties or live very close to them. Now the vote is on hold indefinitely as the State Ethics Commissions sorts the issue out. (Berkshire Eagle)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Massachusetts received $3.3 billion last year in federal funding from the National Institutes of Health, which is funding research at hospitals, universities, medical and biotech firms. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Atrius Health is laying off about 10 percent of its 600-person nursing staff, a move it says was driven by the shutdown of its COVID call center. (Boston Globe

ELECTIONS

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey comes out in support of physician-assisted dying and sports betting. (GBH)

Former US Senator and US Ambassador Scott Brown finds himself in an unusual situation these days – out of the political spotlight and into a supporting role, helping his wife Gail Huff’s campaign for US House in New Hampshire. (Salem News)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Food prices are rising at a rate unseen in decades. (NPR)

The average mortgage rate in Massachusetts hit 4.63 percent on Thursday, the highest rates have been since 2010. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

A Boston University study finds a sharp increase in the number of teachers who left the profession over the last two years. (WBUR)

Some are calling for stricter safety measures, including metal detectors, at Boston public schools after guns are found at several in recent weeks. (Boston Herald

TRANSPORTATION

South Coast Rail is on track to open late next year, but grumbling is already starting about the length of the trip (90 minutes from New Bedford to Boston), the infrequent service, the absence of any downtown stops in South Coast cities, and the lack of guarantees about weekend service. (The Public’s Radio)

Nichols College alumni Marty Allen flies to the edge of space as a crew member in Jeff Bezos’s rocket ship. (Telegram & Gazette)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Climate activists say they are being shut out of the process for determining the role of natural gas in the state’s energy future, with utility officials being allowed to help write the rules. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A jury convicts two Springfield police officers of misdemeanor assault, while clearing them of more serious charges, and acquits two other police officers of all charges after a trial related to a fight between the off-duty police officers and a group of Black civilians outside Nathan Bill’s bar and restaurant. (MassLive)

A former employee of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra pleads guilty to one count of possessing child pornography. (Associated Press)