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Long Island villages join in on online streaming of public meetings

The March 24 Glen Cove City Council meeting

The March 24 Glen Cove City Council meeting was streamed online. Credit: City of Glen Cove

Public participation in local government was a face-to-face affair until COVID-19 and social distancing upended the practice. Video streaming of meetings has been a regular feature for towns and cities on Long Island for years, but they are now changing the ways they use the technology while at the same time more villages are also starting to stream.

New York State Open Meetings Law generally requires that meetings of municipal boards and councils be open to the public to attend in person. On March 12, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an executive order that suspended that section of the law so that meetings could be held remotely by “conference call or similar service” provided that the public could view or listen to the meeting. At the same time the order made a heftier requirement for archiving such meetings, requiring them to be recorded and transcribed rather than simply recorded in minutes that record motions, proposals and resolutions formally voted upon.

Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri said the village used the online platform Zoom to hold its March 23 board meeting. Pontieri presided alone at Village Hall while trustees participated remotely

“Somebody has to be here,” Pontieri said. “It was important that people saw me at Village Hall.”

More than 60 people viewed the meeting, which Pontieri said was a large crowd compared to regular village trustee meetings.

Glen Cove has embraced video conferencing technology as a way to increase public access to city government. The city held its first council meeting using Microsoft’s Team platform on March 24 with Mayor Timothy Tenke and the council members webcasting from their homes and showing up on screen four at a time. That meeting was a test run without public participation but subsequently city officials held a public meeting with the local business community on the platform and allowed participation online.

“Questions have to be typed in and we’ll respond to them as we see them on the screen,” Tenke said. The City Council’s work sessions, called a precouncil meetings, weren’t webcast in the past, but now they will be, Tenke said.

Oyster Bay’s March 31 town board meeting was webcast live from Town Hall but with Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino presiding in person as the town board members called in. Emails from the public — who could not attend in person — were read into the record.

North Hempstead’s March 30 meeting showed pictures of town elected officials while their voices were heard via conference call. A town spokesman said residents can email questions to the board but none were received during that meeting.

It’s less clear how municipalities will deal with public hearings that may require public access to participate. Cuomo’s executive order didn’t cover public hearings.

The New York Conference of Mayors, an organization for municipal officials, said in guidance to local governments that they should “should feel comfortable holding public hearings via videoconference or teleconference if they are capable of doing it in a way that gives the public a reasonable, meaningful opportunity to comment on the subject matter of the public hearing.”

Tenke said Glen Cove’s industrial development agency plans to hold a public hearing via streamed video that will allow the public to submit questions during the hearing by computer or calling in.

“It still gives people the right to be heard and to make comments,” Tenke said.

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