Expand ability to view public meetings remotely
When the pandemic hit two years ago, many organizations, schools, corporations and government entities scrambled to operate on a remote basis.
Municipal governments, which already televised most meetings of their primary boards, probably had the easiest transition. They only had to arrange Zoom access so members could converse virtually.
For other statewide government institutions used to operating only in-person, the transition to conducting their business online opened a door of transparency.
One such body, the Governor’s Council, which wields considerable influence previously immune to most public scrutiny, decided to dispense with the live-streaming of their meetings with the reopening of the State House.
Given the interest generated by its online availability, a range of groups, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Common Cause Massachusetts, MassPIRG, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and the New England Newspaper and Press Association, have urged the Governor’s Council to resume streaming their weekly meetings.
Other groups, including the Disability Law Center and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, also sent their letter to House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka in support of legislation amending the Open Meeting Law.
“In the case of government entities based in Boston, like the Governor’s Council, live streaming enables people to tune in from every corner of the state; discontinuing remote access is devastating for regional equity,” eight groups wrote in a letter to the Council and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who chairs council meetings.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1992 that the state’s Open Meeting Law doesn’t apply to the Governor’s Council, “as a matter of constitutional law.”
The Boston Herald reported earlier this month on the decision to stop streaming Governor’s Council meetings, attributing it in part to a lack of resources to handle technology.
According to a spokesperson, a governor’s office staffer had assisted with technical support for the livestreaming, based on decisions made by the Governor’s Council, whose budget comes out of the governor’s office’s account.
Meanwhile, the governor’s major press conferences and announcements continued to be live-streamed, even from remote locations, including his announcement of a transportation bond bill alongside a highway in Worcester.
Through a spokesman, Polito deferred to the Governor’s Council’s judgment on livestreaming meetings.
According to Governor’s Council staff, the panel did not take a vote on whether to spike livestreaming, but did discuss the matter at an assembly earlier this month.
We believe the public’s right to view the workings of a powerful instrument of government like the Governor’s Council supersedes its preference to remain under the radar.
In February, that body voted to go along with the governor’s recommendation and commute two life prison sentences, the first clemency petitions ever approved by Gov. Charlie Baker.
It also marked the first time in 25 years the Governor’s Council endorsed the release of someone serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
These precedent-setting decisions should be witnessed by the widest possible audience.
If money’s the only obstacle to resuming live-streaming of Governor’s Council meetings, we’re certain the governor’s office can come up with the cash.
Should that not move the transparency needle, the Legislature should act in the public’s interest by amending the Open Meeting Law to ensure remote access to Governor’s Council proceedings.