Remote access to public meetings: An ugly mess, and this is the time to straighten it out for good
If ever there was a signal for Cambridge to get over its weird, anti-democratic resistance to letting its meetings be seen and recorded consistently, it came last week when the School Committee failed to make clear if or how residents could watch an open meeting to evaluate the school district’s superintendent.
In fact, the entire monthslong pandemic has been one long signal about enhancing transparency, and it’s been picked up by everyone from the U.S. Supreme Court (which allowed people to listen to arguments live for the first time in May) to the Federal Reserve Board (going virtual and public at an annual meeting for the first time just last month).
Meanwhile, Cambridge persists in its odd hybrid model of televising some meetings of some bodies but not others, while adding to confusion by applying Zoom video conferencing inconsistently starting in March: starting meetings with it for public comment, then shutting it off, or not, making meetings that could be attended impossible to monitor for citizens without the assumed level of Internet capability. Yet public bodies that were not televising their meetings now allow virtual audio attendance throughout, also via Zoom. It’s a mystifying, pointless jumble of approaches, a seeming remnant of city councillors’ battle against cameras around 2012 when a majority was still touchy about their deep-dive roundtables. They marshaled such arguments as “there’s something magical about when the cameras get turned on in this room – the conversation sometimes is not the same level … If we televise them, they’re no longer roundtables.”
What happened to the Aug. 24 meeting of the School Committee was a violation of state law, which relieves public bodies from some pre-pandemic Open Meeting Law “provided that the public body instead provides adequate, alternative means of public access to the deliberations,” according to the Office of the Attorney General. That may include, “without limitation, providing public access through telephone, Internet or satellite-enabled audio or video conferencing or any other technology that enables the public to clearly follow the proceedings of the public body in real time.”
Another part of state law the committee flubbed: Notice is required 48 hours in advance with the “location” of the meeting. If access to the meeting “will be provided through ‘adequate, alternative means,’ the meeting notice must include clear instructions for accessing the meeting remotely,” according to state guidance.
Dosha Beard, executive secretary to the School Committee, apologized Aug. 27 for the failure to clarify access, explaining that the meeting “was held in the same way our subcommittee meetings are held” – which is not the way committee meetings are held. “We did get some members of the public to only view the meeting, but apparently others were confused as to how to see a meeting that isn’t televised.”
Yet, Beard explained, “traditionally, the evaluation for the superintendent of Schools is not televised.” This was a special meeting, which was a committee meeting held in the manner of a subcommittee meeting – is that clear?
At least the committee posted video of the meeting promptly afterward, as the law demands when public access isn’t provided, but that doesn’t change the fact that members of the public who wanted to watch could not, and that if they wanted to give comment at the meeting, that would also have been thwarted.
There have been a flurry of called, canceled and corrected meetings for this body, and the overlying arbitrariness of electronic access doesn’t help. There was an omen of even more confusion to come this week when it was revealed that with the academic year only weeks away, there’s movement in the district to force virtual learning onto the Google Meet platform instead of Zoom – the city’s standard for public meetings. The Google platform may be considered safer from Zoombombing-style attacks (don’t count on it), but it lacks a “breakout” session feature that Zoom has that parents have called crucial to student engagement. Officials have been sending conflicting signals on what they want and what will happen, which is too much icing on a cake made from a recipe for disaster that nobody ordered in the first place.
It’s long past time that the city get its audiovisual infrastructure standardized and simplified, providing no-brainer simplicity for any meeting’s potential audience now and in the future. At the moment there’s a mix of rules and applications so dumb that it’s overwhelming even in a city as smart as this, from the end of the people posting about and running the meetings to those trying to watch.
Just show all the meetings. Save all the meetings. Do them all the same way, so people don’t have to wonder or figure it out each time. That’s it.