Technology Means Government Can Come To The People

Originally published in The Post-Journal on August 18, 2020.

New York’s byzantine system of government was designed for an age ruled by the horse and buggy or, at best, proximity to a rail line.

Word spread slowly when our system of town and village governments was designed. Not everyone was involved in civic life, and those who were involved generally saw local affairs happen according to their specific schedule.

Those days are gone. Technology has made it easier to keep up on local affairs. Change also means that more people are concerned about what’s happening in their town, village, city or school district. Change also means peoples’ schedules make it more difficult for them to get a firsthand look at their local government.

We support, then, legislation proposed by state Sen. Anna Kaplan, D-Carle Place, who proposes amending Section 104 of the state Public Officers Law to require local governments to stream all open meetings and public hearings on its website in real time. Video recordings would have to be posted within five days of the meeting or public hearing and be maintained for at least five years.

It shouldn’t take weeks or months for minutes of a meeting to be posted to a website, if they are posted at all. People should not have to take time out of their day to go to a town or village hall to view minutes.

There is only one issue we can foresee with S.8868, and that’s cost. Kaplan says there is no cost, and we all know that isn’t true. There is a cost to towns and villages for equipment and file storage, and for many of our smaller towns and villages there will be a cost associated with paying someone with technology experience to run the system.

Kaplan’s bill is a good one, but it should not be an unfunded mandate on local governments struggling under the weight of COVID-19. If and when legislators take up this legislation, they should discuss a way to partner with local governments. We have seen locally during the pandemic that there is an appetite for having these meetings live streamed. Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order forced most meetings onto Zoom or live streaming, the Jamestown City Council has seen roughly 450 people view meetings online. The Chautauqua County Legislature has seen meetings viewed by as many as 640 people. School board meetings in Panama and Clymer have seen a few hundred views for meetings. A June 16 Dunkirk Common Council meeting was seen by 1,230 people, and subsequent meetings have generated between 500 and 900 views.

That interest dwarfs typical attendance at a local meeting. People want to know what’s going on, but they can’t always been in two or three places at once. Governments should go to the people rather than expecting the people to come to them.