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As suspension of Open Meetings Law ends, Town Board considers resolution to allow videoconferencing

After a pandemic-related suspension of the state’s Open Meetings Law ended this month, the Riverhead Town Board is likely to pass a resolution that would allow limited use of videoconferencing for board members unable to physically attend a meeting.

The state provided the town a copy of a boilerplate resolution it can consider passing. The initial legislation at the onset of the pandemic allowed for public meetings to be held virtually with certain requirements to limit in-person gatherings and potential spread of COVID-19. The executive order was extended at several points over the past two and a half years.

“Gov. [Kathy] Hochul did not extend the videoconferencing minimally restrictive rules as of Sept. 12,” said deputy town attorney Dan McCormick at Thursday’s work session. “As of Sept. 13, public bodies must conduct public business via in-person meetings that are open to the public.”

However, the local government can pass a local law that allows videoconferencing under certain conditions, he added.

The Town has already provided live video feeds of meetings through Channel 22 and its website, and board members have committed to continue allowing the public to access meetings remotely via Zoom. The resolution the board will consider refers to when a board member is unable to attend the meeting, but still wants to participate from a remote location. Supervisor Yvette Aguiar has used that option at some points during her tenure.

Mr. McCormick outlined some of the requirements for videoconferencing. A minimum number of members that constitute a quorum — three for the Town Board — must be present at the same physical location, such as Town Hall, meaning up to two members could use videoconferencing at a given meeting.

However, there must be a “determination of extraordinary circumstance that necessitates … remote access as opposed to in-person,” Mr. McCormick said.

An example would be illness, caregiving responsibilities or “any significant or unexpected factor or event that precludes the member from actually participating at the named, physical location,” he said.

A board member can bypass that requirement if the public is granted access to the physical location where the member may be. For example, if the board member is staying at a condo in Florida, the address must be made available prior to the meeting and access would have to be granted to anyone in the public who wishes to show up.

“You better buy plenty of coffee,” Councilman Tim Hubbard quipped.

Under that scenario, the board member would be able to participate, as well as count for quorum.

The resolution to adopt the videoconferencing would be subject to a public hearing.

“This is an enhanced open meetings law legislation to engage the public and it’s a no-brainer,” Ms. Aguiar said.