Remember the days of sitting in a brightly lit school auditorium after finishing a full day of work, waiting for that couple of minutes to voice concerns about your neighborhood?
That’s what Community Board 8 meetings used to look like in March 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic pushed them — and most everything else — online.
A year has passed, and things are looking up. The city, state — even the country — are moving toward fully reopening over the coming months as vaccination totals grow and hospitalizations shrink.
While Laura Spalter believes this is great news, the CB8 chair is worried the impending return to normalcy will spell the end of something that has actually been good: remote board meetings.
“It is a concern,” Spalter said. “As much as people want to get back together again — and it certainly is excellent news that we’re slowly in phases reopening — I think this is going to pose a problem for us in terms of having our meetings.”
When the spread of the virus made it dangerous to meet in-person, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order suspending parts of the state’s open meetings law that required in-person attendance. Instead, boards meeting through videoconferencing apps like Zoom were deemed to be in-line with the law, meaning business could continue as long as there was an internet connection nearby.
Cuomo extended the executive order several times, but that was before a full reopening of the city was imminent. Spalter doubts the governor will renew the order again.
So she’s trying to get ahead of the problem, penning a letter to Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, his son Councilman Eric Dinowitz, and state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, asking all of them to convince Cuomo that extending the option to host remote meetings should continue at least another year.
Both Jeff and Eric Dinowitz already are on Spalter’s side, she said. She’s still waiting for word from Biaggi.
If the order were to expire, Spalter said, it would be hard for CB8 to conduct regular business.
“I mean, we have the land use, we have liquor licenses, we have so many critical community issues,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Plus, Spalter added, meeting remotely has brought positive change to the board. Mainly because it makes it easier for the public to attend.
“It’s got real benefits,” she said, “and not just that you could be in your slippers.”
Spalter has other key reasons to keep remote meeting going as well. Space is the main issue, she said, because CB8’s current office doesn’t have enough room to hold the monthly full-board meeting — which can have more than 60 attendees. The same is true for some of the more popular committees like traffic and transportation and land use.
Before the pandemic, the board turned to schools, houses of worship, senior citizen centers and any other spaces for room to meet, almost always at no cost to the community board.
“We have always depended on the gracious generosity of community organizations to host our committee and full board meetings,” Spalter said. I “believe that these locations will be very challenging and very difficult — and possibly unavailable — to the board moving forward.”
Spalter worries CB8 can’t rely on these spaces because many are likely reopening on different schedules, and with their own coronavirus-related precautions. The board has been working on finding a new office space that could possibly accommodate bigger meetings for the past couple of years, but Spalter said this won’t help them in the short term.
“People can call and Zoom in from all over without leaving their homes and schlepping all over the place,” Spalter said. “When you had horrible weather — say in January — you had to cancel because of the snow. (Now) you’re on Zoom, you never have to cancel.”
This increased engagement isn’t unique to CB8. Paul Wolf, an attorney with the New York Coalition for Open Government advocacy group, said he’s seen attendance dramatically go up at public meetings around the state. One city upstate, Ogdensburg — which has a population of about 10,000 — recently welcomed nearly 1,000 people to a remote city council meeting.
“A lot of times the thought was, ‘Well, the public doesn’t really care, look how many people bother to show up,’” Wolf said. “But when you use technology and make it easy for people, it makes it clear that a lot of people are interested.”
Wolf believes remote meetings should be taken a step further. Local government bodies should not only be required to livestream meetings as they happen, but also post an accessible recording of them online afterward.
However, one potential drawback of meeting remotely versus in-person is that it allows officials to limit public comment. This happened a lot early in the pandemic, Wolf said. But since then, more public bodies have started allowing comment through email and over videoconference.
CB8 limits public comment at full-board meetings to something it calls a “gallery session,” where up to five people can sign up in advance to speak for three minutes. However, most of the board’s other committees allow extensive public comment simply by electronically raising their hand on Zoom.
These same rules applied for in-person meetings too, Spalter added, except with real hands raised.
Spalter isn’t alone. Westchester County Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti is sponsoring a bill that is intended to jump past the governor and allow remote meetings through the beginning of next year.
Whether it’s through legislation or extending the executive order, Assemblyman Dinowitz says CB8 needs to keep the option of meeting remotely.
“It’s not practical right now to go back to the old ways,” he said. “A lot of the board members and the public will not feel comfortable going into a crowded meeting. And number two, try finding meeting space. Who’s going to want to offer their facilities for these meetings?”
Community Board 8 hosts its next meeting Thursday evening with the economic development committee. Those wishing to attend the 7:30 meeting can find it on Zoom.