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Does ‘online’ include ‘out of town?’


CHATHAM— At the April 7 Town Board workshop meeting, held online, the board passed local law #2, with a 3-to-2 vote. The law allows members of the Town Board and town committees to participate in their respective meetings via video conference from locations outside the town boundary lines.

The “legislative intent” section of the law says “videoconferencing has proven to be an effective and useful tool for town board meetings that allows members to participate despite issues such as inclement weather, illness or travel plans.”

Public Officers Law allows members of public bodies to attend and participate in meetings using video conference, but Chatham town law states that board meetings must take place within the town, thereby making it unclear if a town board may participate online from a location outside the town’s boundaries. So this law would supersede town law and allow the board members to use videoconferencing from a location outside the town.

The state’s Open Meeting Law also has a section on videoconferencing, stating, in part, “a public body may, in its discretion, use videoconferencing to conduct its meetings pursuant to the requirements

of this article provided that a minimum number of members are present to fulfill the public body’s quorum requirement in the same physical location or locations where the public can attend.”

Four Chatham residents spoke during the public hearing on the proposed law. Former Town Board member John Wapner said he was “surprised and dismayed” by the law, saying there was no limit to how often the board member could be out of town for meetings and remain on the board.

Resident Cindy Bobseine also talked about there being no time limit on the law, saying it was a “forever law” and talked about how important it was to go back to having in-person meetings. Tom Ehrich also said that staying with online meetings is not healthy for the board.

Carol Moore, who spoke about issues with her internet connection at the meeting, echoed the concerns about having online meetings and said people wanted to go back to in-person meetings.

The law does not say that meetings will continue to be held totally online, but that members can participate in meetings remotely from outside the town. If a member does use videoconferencing to attend a meeting, according to the state Committee on Open Government, the meeting notice must include: a statement that videoconferencing will be used; the exact location from which every member of the public body is participating; and a statement that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any location from which a member of the public body is participating.

Later in the Chatham Town Board meeting, Supervisor Donal Collins talked about the Town of Ancram hosting hybrid-meetings, in-person and online. He said that the Town of Chatham plans to purchase a camera and video screen with federal Covid relief funds.

As for the local law, board member Destiny Hallenbeck asked, “What is the intent of the law?” And Board member Rick Werwaiss said “I think it’s too open ended.” So he and Ms. Hallenbeck voted against it. Supervisor Collins, and board members Vance Pitkin and Abi Mesick voted for it.

During the pandemic, based on an executive order from the governor changing the state’s Open Meeting Law, all boards were allowed “to meet and take such action authorized by law without permitting in public in-person access to meetings and authorize such meetings to be held remotely by conference call or similar service, provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”

When asked by The Columbia Paper, Shoshana Bewlay, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said that the changed rules on Open Meetings may revert back to the old requirements this Friday, April 15 if the governor does not extend the executive order, which includes the section on noticing the videoconferencing and “the public notice for the meeting shall inform the public that videoconferencing will be used, identify the locations for the meeting, and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations.”

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