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New Jersey Asks If Virtual Public Meetings Should Be Required

Public bodies are not required to record their meetings and many did so simply out of courtesy during the pandemic. As local governments return in person, some wonder if recording public meetings should be mandatory.

(TNS) — When New Jersey's Wall Township Board of Education announced earlier this month that it would no longer be livestreaming its meetings, the news came as a surprise to some of the district’s constituents. Surely, this must be some breach of the public body’s transparency obligation, critics mused in online forums. But the Wall Board of Education is well within its rights to revoke the courtesy of livestreaming under state law. In fact, policy experts and public officials told NJ Advance Media that public bodies in the Garden State, like your local board of education or town council, have more leeway in this regard than you might think.

“In many parts of the country, there is no Open Public Meeting Act…so from that perspective, we’re certainly ahead of many places,” said Matthew Hale, Ph.D, associate professor for the department of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. Hale is also an elected council member in Highland Park. “And I would say that in comparison to many states, New Jersey is actually probably more on the side of openness and transparency,” Hale added.

Open meetings conducted by public bodies in New Jersey are governed by the “Sunshine Law,” otherwise known as the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). The law “gives the public the right to be present at meetings of public bodies and to witness in full detail the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of public bodies,” according to the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It generally requires all meetings of public bodies to be open, but there’s also a host of exclusions — like for discussions regarding personnel matters, pending litigation, or any issue “considered confidential by law or court rule.”

But the law was adopted in the 1970s — before email, before the internet, and before the COVID-19 pandemic. That means there’s nothing that requires public bodies to record their meetings and although it became common practice during the pandemic, there’s no requirement to provide a livestream of meetings either, Hale said.

“There’s no requirement that the meetings be anything but in person,” he explained. “The law does not address modern technology particularly effectively. And I think that might be one of the needs for the law, is to update the law to better reflect existing technology.”

Not only is there no statute that requires a public body, such as a board of education, to record its meetings, but there’s also “nothing that prohibits editing the recordings,” confirmed Janet Bamford, spokesperson for the New Jersey School Boards Association. That’s something leadership in Wall Public Schools has said it may consider.

“What has happened is the behavior of some people at meetings has led us to take the action of having to record the meeting, and then possibly post a warning before the meeting,” said Wall Board of Education president Ralph Addonizio.

At the board’s March 1 meeting, there was an exchange during public comment which referenced students involved in the district’s hazing scandal. Board members declined to comment, citing confidentiality, and when their attorney reiterated that position, an attendee responded with profanity. Following the exchange, the board went into executive session where they came to the conclusion that they would no longer livestream future meetings, but instead record them for later playback, but reserve the right to edit them.

“I know a lot of people that watch the meetings, sometimes they have their kids around, and they don’t expect to hear someone drop an F-bomb or say something that most parents don’t want their kids exposed at a younger age. So we took the necessary steps to protect people,” Addonizio said.

Addonizio said the board will not make a habit of editing its recordings — in fact, it may never have cause to do so — and he said it hasn’t edited any recordings since announcing the new practice. Editing will only be employed in unique circumstances, he explained, such as “if someone got up and started talking about student names and a student matter, because student matters and even employee matters are confidential.”

City councils, township committee and other municipal ruling bodies, as well as planning and zoning boards, are also governed by the Open Public Meetings Act, which requires municipalities to hold in-person or teleconferenced meetings open to the public, with proper advertising 48 hours in advance, the adoption and publication of meeting minutes, and related provisions. But the Sunshine law is silent on streaming live or recorded meetings.

“The decision to livestream meetings is up to each governing body,” Tammori Petty-Dixon, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which includes the Division of Local Government Services, said in an email.

“Livestreaming in some municipalities is either new or has replaced the recording of meetings that were then on a cable channel’s local access programming, which usually runs on a certain day and time. Livestreaming is immediate where cable broadcasting is delayed,” Petty-Dixon said. “Generally, livestreaming provides only the ability to view the meeting, providing transparency, but does not allow for participation. Zoom meetings allow for participation when they replace in-person meetings.”

Seaside Heights Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz said the borough council tried using Zoom to stream meetings and allow public participation after returning to in-person meetings last summer.

But in an example of the kind of technical foibles hindering local governments that lack in-house support staff, the council abandoned the attempt due to excessive feedback. Not negative comments, but the squealing feedback loops generated when multiple computer tablets and laptops used by council members picked up each other’s identical audio signals.

“We have seven governing body members and they all sit pretty close to each other,” Vaz said. “And the minute they open up their iPads, they start feeding back.”

Now, he said, the borough uses Swagit, a Dallas-based web conferencing platform that incorporates audio and video with multiple camera angles, which Vaz controls during council meetings. Swagit livestreams and records the council webcasts and converts them into files for uploading to the borough website, where they can be viewed anytime by the public.

Vaz said he launches each webcast just prior to the meeting’s opening and ends it immediately after the gavel is struck for adjournment. Swagit doesn’t have the capability for officials to edit the recordings, said Vaz. But even if it did, he added, the thought had never occurred to borough officials.

He and his father, Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz, said there hadn’t been the kind of outburst that prompted Wall school officials to stop livestreaming and warn of audio redactions on posted recordings.

And both said they had received only positive feedback (comments, that is) from residents happy that the webcasts were continuing even after in-person meetings had resumed in summer 2021. They include people with summer homes in the beachfront borough who want to stay abreast of municipal business without having to make a trip down the Garden State Parkway for an in-person meeting.

“We’re doing it because we thought it was a good tool for the community, so why not continue it?” the mayor said. “The pandemic brought out some good things. It sounds like a terrible thing to say, but it’s true.”

The downside of Swagit as of now, Chris Vaz said, is that it doesn’t permit the streaming public to comment directly during council webcasts, as they can do at an in-person meeting or on Zoom. But he and his father were convinced it was only a matter of time before Swagit remedied the situation.

As a purely voluntary service, whether and how to stream meetings or post recordings did not seem to be a pressing issue for most local officials, said Lori Buckelew, director of government affairs at the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. Rather, Buckelew said it would be driven by the capability of available technology, its usefulness, its cost, and whether taxpayers and local officials are willing to pay for it.

Buckelew said there was no way to know how many municipalities livestreamed their meetings or posted recordings, much less edited them.

“As technology is changing, so, too, is how municipalities conduct the public’s business,” Buckelew said. “Municipalities are going to do what’s best to meet the needs of the community.”

The Morris County Board of Commissioners has provided Webex audioconferencing of its meetings before while they were in-person prior to the pandemic, in place of in-person attendance, then once again as a convenience when in-person meetings resumed in early 2021, said Brian Murray, a board spokesperson.

“We maintained it as a convenience to everyone,” said Murray, who said the audio recordings are posted online, unedited, within a day after the meeting.

Despite the convenience of the audioconferencing or recordings, Murray said some members of the public prefer to attend meetings in-person, and overall the number of people who tune in is about the same as those who stop in. Of course, the ratio varies from meeting to meeting.

“If the weather’s bad,” he said, “that’s when a lot of people tune in virtually.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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