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Legislation allows local boards to close meeting

Goodell Closed Access Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, holds up a copy of A.8591 during a floor debate earlier this week.

The state is poised to continue allowing local governments to hold remote meetings with no in-person public access — a decision with which Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, disagrees vehemently.

State Assembly members passed A.8591 earlier this week by a 101-43 vote. The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Fred Thiele, I-Sag Harbor, doesn’t require local governments to close their meetings, but gives them the option to do so as a COVID-19 mitigation measure. A Senate version of the legislation, S.7623, also was passed earlier this week by a 47-16 vote with Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, joining several other Senate Republicans in opposition. The legislation will be sent to Gov. Kathy Hochul for approval.

The legislation extends the current authorization for state and local government entities to meet remotely by conference call or similar service, so long as the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and provided such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.

Goodell argued there is nothing in state law preventing local governments or school boards from broadcasting their meetings online, as the city of Jamestown has been doing under Mayor Eddie Sundquist and as Chautauqua County has been doing for the past year. The Jamestown Republican took issue with allowing local governments to bar in-person attendance at a time when stores are open and people can choose to attend football games, movies and other leisure activities. He said the bill allows governments to close access, essentially shutting government off from those who don’t have internet access, a computer or a smart phone. He also said the legislation conflicts with the state’s Open Meetings Law.

“What this bill does, it allows local governments to bar in-person participation by the public,” Goodell said. “And why? Why do we want to allow every local government, every school board, every town, to bar the public from attending in person? We’re told it’s because of COVID. Yet as the sponsor acknowledged, and I agree with him certainly, there’s no other business in the state of New York that bars the public. Do you want to watch a football game with 60,000 other people? You can come. You might have to show a vaccination card and wear a mask, but you can come. Do you want to go up to a store or a business or any other activity in the state of New York? You can legally attend, but if we pass this you can go to any store or business in New York except your local school board or your local town board or your county legislature, because they can bar you.”

Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, responded to Republicans’ opposition to the legislation by taking note of the increasing COVID-19 cases in the state and the fact that local governments can choose to provide a video broadcast of their meetings.

“To suggest that somehow we here in the state of New York, in this body, can figure out what’s in the best interest of local governments, that wasn’t true before COVID and it’s not true now,” she said. “They can make those decisions on their own. They have, and will continue to do that. This legislation allows them to do that. Secondly, I want to add this, Mr. Speaker. Last week there were some people in this room who are not in this room today because they tested positive. Last week our speaker wasn’t even here because he tested positive. This is not like we are in a clear day where everything is going to be fine. Everything is not fine yet, so I think it’s important to give local government the opportunity not just to recognize that everything is not fine but to do what you need to do to handle your business in your district.”

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