Community board chairs are pushing back on a requirement that their meetings resume in person next month — with some saying they plan to defy state law if necessary to keep their sessions COVID-safe.
And as interpreted by New York's official watchdog for public access to government, the state's open meetings law means that every community board member who Zooms into a meeting now technically must advertise in advance the address they are dialing in from — even if that is their home — and open their doors to all who wish to join.
"Opening up people's homes? That's insanity. That's ridiculous," scoffed Frank Morano, chair of Staten Island's Community Board 3.
After Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended in-person government meetings last year in declaring a state of emergency at the dawn of the pandemic, the city's 59 community boards migrated to online video platforms such as Webex and Zoom.
Civic engagement soared as members of the public, the boards and government agency reps easily participated from the comfort of their homes via the internet, mastering the mute button and other video conferencing features.
But once vaccinations made gathering safer, the state lifted the emergency order on June 24. Community boards were once again subject to the state's open meetings law — requiring public access to the physical premises of an official gathering.
With the return of board meetings following a summer break coming up in September while virus risks remain, volunteer board members and boards' government-employed managers are sounding the alarm on the risks of in-person gatherings, pleading with city and state officials to allow them to continue meeting remotely.
"Not only are we still in the midst of this ongoing health crisis, but we're on a trajectory with cases going up," said Alexa Weitzman, chair of Queens Community Board 6, which represents Forest Hills and Rego Park. "This is not a time to reconvene in person."
Because board members are not employed by the government, the vaccine and testing mandates covering city workers do not apply. Nor can boards screen members of the public in the way that restaurants, gyms and theaters now must.
All in the room must wear masks, according to a City Hall memo, which also directed community boards to keep six feet of distance between participants.
Morano and Weitzman told THE CITY that they plan to keep holding virtual-only meetings, either because of virus concerns or because of a lack of space to socially distance.