In just a few short weeks, unless the Connecticut General Assembly acts, virtual public meetings will go dark. Once again, many Connecticut residents will be prevented from participating in public meetings, unable to inform the policies that impact their lives and property.
Last June, Public Act 21-2 extended the COVID-era Executive Orders to allow state and local public meetings to be conducted virtually, in-person, or hybrid, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), at the discretion of each agency. This provision is set to expire on April 30, 2022.
Despite being prompted by the pandemic’s public health measures, one of the most pleasant revelations of the past two years has been how broadly and enthusiastically the public has embraced the virtual option. Polling conducted by the Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) found over 90% support for providing communities with the continued option for virtual or hybrid meetings. Anecdotal reports from professional planning and zoning staff and commissioners across the state confirm a near-unanimous enthusiasm for virtual or hybrid meetings.
Nearly every public agency across the state has seen an increase in public engagement in the important business of government over the past two years. This is directly attributable to the flexibility provided by Public Act 21-2. Parents with young children, people who don’t like to drive at night, residents with disabilities, workers with inflexible schedules, commissioners who are out of town on business, or anyone who would prefer to join a meeting from the comfort of their home can participate in virtual public meetings.
Unless action is taken quickly on HB 5269, An Act Concerning Virtual Meetings Under the Freedom of Information Act, public agencies will once again be prohibited from conducting virtual and hybrid meetings. People will once again be compelled to physically show up at a government building or meeting house if they want to engage in public meetings. If they are unable to do so, their options to participate in local and state democracy will be limited.
To be absolutely clear, HB 5269 does not impose any State requirements on any local Board or Commission. On the contrary, the Bill provides every public agency, at every level, the ability to decide for themselves whether a virtual, in-person, or hybrid meeting is most appropriate. If there is a snowstorm; if a commissioner is unavoidably out of town; or if, heaven forbid, there is a new public health emergency, the virtual or hybrid meeting will remain an option. If officials would prefer to meet in person, that option remains as well.
There is no good reason to oppose this option for all of our public agencies. Certainly, the technology for virtual or hybrid meetings requires some management, but the pandemic has shown that we are all more clever and more resilient than we thought. COVID pushed our approach to meetings into the 21st century. Many of our towns and cities have made significant investments of both time and money to address these new challenges, and those investments should be respected.
Unless the legislature takes action quickly, we will all be forced to return to the 18th century way of conducting government business. If we are to fulfill our goal as an open and participatory democracy, we need to expand options for our citizens to engage, not reduce them.
John P. Guszkowski, AICP is principal at Tyche Planning & Policy Group, LLC and co-chair of the Government Relations Committee of the Connecticut chapter of the American Planning Association.