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Ghent law allows for videoconferencing when tech is ready

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GHENT – At its July 21 meeting, the Ghent Town Board passed a new local law allowing for board members to use videoconferencing. The legislative intent of the new law is to give “the town’s public bodies,” which include the Town Board, Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, the authority to conduct and participate in meetings via videoconference “so long as a quorum of [the] public body participates from a location where the public may be physically present and other conditions are met,” according to the law.

Towns in the county and state are enacting these laws thanks to changes in the state’s Open Meetings Laws (OML), which protect the public’s right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to debate and watch the decision-making process. The Open Meeting Laws have been changed to allow videoconferencing without having to make the location the member is videoconferencing from open to the public. During the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and early 2021 boards could meet with all members and the members of the public online. This modified law, as Ghent Town Attorney Matthew Cabral said at the July 21 meeting, allows more of a hybrid meeting.

According to the Committee on Open Government, on April 9, Governor Hochul signed Chapter 56 of the Laws of 2022 relating to the state budget for the 2022-23 state fiscal year, which included an amendment to the OML to make permanent (until July 1, 2024) “the expanded use of videoconferencing by public bodies to conduct open meetings, under extraordinary circumstances, regardless of a declaration of emergency.”

The committee goes on to say that, “the intent of the amendments to the OML was to expand the authority of a public body to allow its members to participate in a meeting using videoconferencing under limited circumstances when the member’s location is not open to in-person public attendance. Before the onset of the pandemic in 2020, public bodies routinely held proper open meetings by videoconference from multiple physical locations identified in the meeting notice that were open to the public, connected virtually together by videoconference.”

Town Attorney Cabral said that the law passed by the town would enable the boards to use videoconferencing but right now they are prohibited from using it because of the technology they need. Supervisor Simmons when asked about the getting the right equipment said, “That’s our goal.” The board did discuss getting a video screen for the meeting/courtroom to display plans during Planning Board and ZBA meetings

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email eteasdale@columbiapaper.com

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