The ACLU of Rhode Island released a report today detailing the open meeting practices of city and town councils and school committees in providing the public remote access to their meetings in a post-Covid environment. The report found that, while a majority of these public bodies continue to livestream their meetings, record and archive them, and provide agenda documents online, a notable number did not. But the report also found that few of these bodies were continuing to make remote participation by the public available as they had during the pandemic.
It has been over a year since the lapse of the Governor’s executive orders that required remote public access to, and participation in, meetings to ensure the public would have reasonable access to them during the pandemic. This past month, the ACLU looked at the recent agendas of all city and town councils and school committees to examine four facets of remote access: whether members of the public could watch meetings remotely; participate in meetings remotely; access archived recordings of the meetings; and review agenda packets remotely. In three of the four areas, the results were generally positive. The ACLU’s report specifically found the following:
- 32 of 39 city and town councils (82%) continue to make livestreaming options available to the public, as do 25 of 34 school committees (74%)
- A large majority of these public bodies offer archived meeting videos for future viewing. Altogether, 35 of 39 city and town councils (90%) host old meeting videos, more than those that livestream their meetings. On the school committee side, 27 of 34 (79%) provide open archived recordings of their meetings to the public.
- In a very encouraging vein, 31 of 39 city and town councils (79%) include links to their agenda packets or documents for public access. However, only half of the school committees provided full or partial packets to the public at the time of their meetings.
- Unlike the generally positive results noted above, continuing to allow remote participation by the public is quite uncommon. Only one school committee –– Barrington –– offers hybrid participation, and only 12 city or town councils (31%) offer any kind of remote participation options.
In support of expanding remote access, the report argues that “there is simply no reason for any city or town council or school committee to fail to livestream their meetings, record them for future reference, and provide links to agenda item documents online. . . . [W]hile there may be technological challenges in some communities to offer hybrid participation in meetings, every city and town council and school committee should at least make the effort to determine if it is feasible, and the state should consider providing financial and technical assistance — as it did during the pandemic — to help them with this goal.”
The report notes that while it is important for transparency that council and school committee members themselves meet in-person, the past three years have shown the enormous benefit of remote access by the public to those meetings. Concluding, the report explains:
As a result of the open meetings lessons spurred by the pandemic, more parents were able to monitor school board meetings without having to find childcare; elderly residents could watch evening town council meetings without having to drive in the dark; and harried individuals with two jobs often had an opportunity to watch an important governmental meeting on their own schedule. Major public bodies that have not continued with those opportunities for remote public involvement should do so.
The report calls on every city and town council and school committee to meet the four metrics examined in the study, if they are not already. Presently, 12 councils and one school committee meet all four standards, while three town councils and four school committees appear to meet none of them. The report also welcomed updates and corrections, as the ACLU of RI plans on providing updates in the future on the practices of these public bodies.
ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown said today: “It is clear from our analysis that it is feasible for all municipalities and school committees to implement measures to increase transparency and attendance by constituents who do not have the time or means to attend meetings in-person. The continuation of hybrid tools is important to ensure public meetings are indeed open and accessible to all, and we urge these important public bodies that are not already doing so to put them into effect.”
Relatedly, a pending bill in the General Assembly, S-815 by Sen. Victoria Gu, would require designated major public bodies to livestream and record their meetings and require remote public participation to the extent that in-person participation is offered.