Shellfisherman Douglas Rodgers stood in Oyster Bay’s Town Hall last week to ask the town board to delay its request for proposals to license shellfishing rights in the harbor. His address to the board was the first during the public comment period in Oyster Bay since March when the town — and municipalities across the state — stopped holding in-person meetings in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The supervisor and the town board members felt the time had come with the proper safety protocols in place that we could welcome the public back in a safe manner to Town Hall,” Oyster Bay spokesman Brian Nevin said in an interview last week.
Residents were required to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing, and the town limited the number of people allowed in the hearing room to 35, according to a meeting notice.
In March, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo suspended a requirement under state open meetings law that the public be allowed in-person to attend public meetings so long as the meetings could be watched or heard and that they be recorded and transcribed. That suspension now runs through Aug. 5.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the governor’s order did not prohibit in-person municipal meetings nor did limits on the size of other public gatherings come into effect.
“Government is deemed essential so crowd size does not technically apply,” Azzopardi said. “We’ve asked governments to be mindful of all the [safety] guidelines” such as wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer and maintaining social distancing, he said.
Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino wore a mask during last week's meeting, but other elected officials removed theirs.
Municipalities have taken different approaches to allowing public participation during virtual meetings since March.
Oyster Bay officials since March have sometimes read emails and letters from the public out loud during streamed meetings, but some correspondence was only mentioned and not included in meeting minutes. Nevin said those letters could be obtained through the town clerk’s office.
Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government, said in an email that “the town would have no obligation to include copies or summaries of public comments in its meeting minutes” under state law, but the comments should be available through a Freedom of Information Law request.
The Town of Hempstead, which distributes public correspondence to board members but does not read them out loud, plans to resume in-person attendance for the public at its Aug. 4 meeting, but safety protocols are still being worked out, town spokesman Gregory Blower said.
Glen Cove, which allows the public to submit questions via email that are then read and responded to live during the streamed meeting, doesn't yet plan to resume in-person meetings, city spokeswoman Shannon Vulin said in an email.
Huntington now allows residents to call into hearings that are held remotely via the Zoom platform, but they must reserve a spot 12 hours in advance and in-person meetings have not been planned, spokeswoman Lauren Lembo said in an email. “We will continue holding meetings remotely until we can accommodate full public participation in-person that complies with the state guidelines," she said.
Oyster Bay public meeting attendance rules:
Wear a face covering
Maintain social distancing
No more than 35 members of the public allowed in the Town Hall hearing room
Source: Town of Oyster Bay