As we look back on the past hellish year, it is also time to sort through those changes that are worth keeping, the things that actually made our lives better.
And those changes don’t start and end with take-away cocktails – as fun as they were. One of the best things that came out of the pandemic lockdown was the way most government agencies, from Beacon Hill committees to community boards and commissions, have adapted so that their own members and the public can remotely connect Meetings can attend – conveniently and safely from their side houses.
Computer screens became the critical window of the political world, allowing the public to watch legislative committee hearings on important issues, city council hearings, and city assemblies. And in many of these cases not just to tune in, but also to bear witness from a distance. Distance or obstruction no longer mattered. Also, the inability to find a babysitter or reluctance to take the hour-long hike from Pittsfield to Boston.
This blessing not only for the convenience but also for the transparency of the government must not be lost when that state and its public bodies return to an almost normal normalcy. Globe editors recently argued that remote meetings should remain an option – but in many cases the state can go a step further and explicitly mandate some form of remote access.
Start with Beacon Hill itself. The legislature, free from the public assembly law, has adapted admirably in some ways – it provides remote access to committee hearings. In some (but not all) cases, committees have made written testimony publicly available. It would be unfortunate to see the newly found access disappear.
For those entities governed by the public assembly law, several bills tabled this year – and already remotely consulted – would preserve the best of what Massachusetts residents expect from their other political entities, and update the law to require public bodies continue to offer “reasonable alternative means of public access” and “effective remote access” to meetings long after the state of emergency is lifted. It would also require a way to enable “real-time active public participation” remotely when it is already required for face-to-face meetings.
The governor signed a law last week that extends, but does not require, the ability of public entities to use remote technologies until April 1, 2022.
Also with regard to the benefits of being in person, the proposed new law would also require that “all meetings of a public body be open to the public in a public place that is public and physically accessible,. . ”To clarify that once life is back to normal, so must the business of doing people’s business personally and in public.
The bill, tabled by Rep. Denise Garlick and Senator Jason Lewis, is supported not only by about 60 of their colleagues, but also by a coalition of interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition and several disability rights groups.
“Over the past year, the majority of buildings and venues became inaccessible to society as a whole – and suddenly there was this universal understanding of what inaccessibility meant, be it in the context of a disability or a raging global pandemic,” said Dianna Hu, chairwoman of Boston Center for Independent Living in a statement. “Remote participation is the latest manifestation of universal design – along with curbs, elevators, subtitles, audiobooks, and other accessibility features that have become universally popular. We now have a remarkable opportunity not only to maintain accessibility, but also to optimize it, making remote participation a curb 2.0 for today. “
A remote option can perfectly coexist with face-to-face meetings. After all, Zoom – and its remote tech cousins like Facebook Live and YouTube Live – will never be a complete substitute for reality, especially for journalists like Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the lawmaker at a hearing said earlier this month.
“Yes, you can zoom in on them, but no, you can’t walk up to them afterwards, engage with them, talk to them and converse with them that way,” he said.
But “there is no reason to back away from this new era of public access,” he later added in a statement.
No reason – and every reason, to keep this newly discovered means of making government more transparent and accessible.
There was a time when what was supposed to be a “people’s affair” was too often done in smoky rooms. Well, the smoke may have cleared, but the requirements of the Open Meeting Law remain a source of frequent tugging and pulling. Adding a new level of transparency is long overdue. Now it can be a rare pandemic bonus.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter @GlobeOpinion.