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As COVID emergency nears end, key state agencies continue to meet virtually 3/29/2023 Chris Van Buskirk,

For nearly two years after the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the MBTA Board of Directors met virtually, shifting to an online platform that allowed members to continue their oversight of the agency while maintaining distance.

But for one meeting in mid-July 2022, board members returned to their once-typical downtown Boston room in the State Transportation Building for an in-person meeting because the authorization allowing public entities to meet remotely had temporarily expired.

The MBTA board quickly returned to meeting virtually once lawmakers extended the remote public meeting provision. And it is unclear what their plans are moving forward.

And now, eight months later, with the pandemic state of emergency ending in May, some key state agencies, commissions, and boards continue to meet exclusively online, where there is increased access for the mass public but direct contact with important government officials is oftentimes difficult.

Some advocates say it is time for government meetings to shift to a permanent hybrid format that retains the success of offering virtual participation while making public officials available to residents who want to interact with them face-to-face.

“There really is no way to replace the experience of being in a room physically with people,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project at ACLU Massachusetts. “We don’t support meetings staying online exclusively, however, the public needs to retain the opportunity to watch, to listen in, and to contribute to those meetings remotely. So that’s why we prefer a hybrid approach.”

Officials say virtual meetings offer them flexibility and the ability to bring in speakers from all across the state or country who might not otherwise have been able to travel to Boston-based offices. The virtual nature of the hearings also creates a more accessible experience, they argue.

Lawmakers have agreed to extend a law allowing remote municipal or other public meetings until March 31, 2025 in a bill they sent to Gov. Maura Healey’s desk last week. Pending the governor’s signature, those provisions are set to expire on March 31 or when the pandemic-induced state of emergency lifts later this year.

And if Healey approves the extension, major boards, commissions and agencies could continue to meet virtually.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission — which has been closely watched since August 2022 as it propped up the sports betting industry — floated the idea in October 2022 of returning to their public meeting room, but have since appeared to put the idea on ice.

At the time, Executive Director Karen Wells said the agency hired a group to outfit their public meeting room at the commission’s Boston office with new technology. She said the plan was “to begin convening our public meetings in person.” A timeline was never announced.

Gaming Commission spokesman Thomas Mills said gaming regulators have “appreciated the flexibility that virtual formats have offered to stakeholders across the commonwealth and nation.”

“We will be assessing how to best continue to ensure public access and transparency by exploring a hybrid format for our public meetings to further the benefits associated with live convenings,” he said in a statement.

And then there are groups like the Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, a body tasked with regulating and licensing police officers in Massachusetts. Their work includes suspending officers who are facing felonies or missing training requirements and certifying the thousands of law enforcement personnel in the state.

The agency, which now has a multi-million dollar budget, was created in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers. It first met in May 2021, and while it has an office in downtown Boston, it has never held an in-person public meeting.

POST Commission spokesperson Cindy Campbell did not say whether the commission plans to hold in-person meetings in the future, but said remote technology has allowed members to “attend and participate from different parts of the state.”

“The virtual technology also allows many members of the public to observe these meetings. POST is committed to transparency, and we will always hold our meetings in accordance with the open meeting law,” Campbell said in a statement to MassLive.

Crockford of ACLU Massachusetts said the organization is supporting legislation that would permanently amend the state’s open meeting law to require state boards, commissions, and municipal agencies to both show up in person and make meetings available remotely.

“We think that folks in government, oftentimes they are being paid to do those jobs, and they ought to show up in person and make themselves available to the press as well as to members of the public,” Crockford said. “But we do need to retain the option for … members of the public and the press to be able to tune in remotely and to contribute remotely.”

And the MBTA board, which has been highly scrutinized over the past year as it deals with a slowed-down and aging system, appears to have last consistently held in-person meetings in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic first started and when the body was known as the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide one before publication.

Advocates of allowing hybrid meetings point to success seen on the municipal level, where everything from local school committees to city councils have managed to set up virtual or hybrid attendance options.

And that success, those supporters say, has also translated to state-level hearings.

“If you think that it’s inconvenient to go to a night meeting, because most municipal meetings are at night, … in your own community, imagine what it’s like to have to, if you’re interested in what’s going on in the MBTA, to go to the transportation building in Boston during the day when you have to take time off from work,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

The decision to return to in-person, continue remotely, or meet in a hybrid fashion comes as Healey decided earlier this month to lift the last remaining parts of the state’s COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11, the same day a federal health emergency is scheduled to sunset.

Lifting the emergency will bring a handful of orders like masking in health care and congregational care settings to an end. The governor also said a vaccine mandate for executive branch state employees would end on the same day.

It is part of a recent movement towards pre-pandemic normalities and it is happening as COVID-19 case numbers continue to decline in Massachusetts, though a majority of testing is happening at home. All of Massachusetts is considered at low risk for COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the virus appears to be subsiding for the moment, advocates of remote and hybrid public meetings say the state Legislature should move to make them permanent, instead of extending their authorization as expiration dates near.

“We would strongly support a permanent option,” Beckwith said.

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