Baker Order Applies to State and Local Bodies
Michael P. Norton, State House News 3/12/20 9:19 PM
MARCH 12, 2020…..In a significant change spurred by the spreading coronavirus, government boards in Massachusetts may now meet without a physical quorum of members present and without affording public access to the physical meeting locations, under an order announced Thursday night by Gov. Charlie Baker.
The administration indicated the emergency order, which is effective immediately, is designed to facilitate the continuation of government business while reducing the risk of people being exposed to COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has triggered a global pandemic.
Under the emergency order, public access to meeting locations would not be required as long as there are other means of access available. The administration cited “the use of a phone conference line for members of the public, social media or other internet streaming services, on-line meeting services, or methods of access.”
“This order is applicable to meetings of public bodies including commissions, boards, and committees that engage in policy making at the state, quasi and local level, and it does not apply to Town Meetings or judicial and quasi-judicial hearings,” according to the administration.
The order itself cites the state’s open meeting law and mentions the importance of “active public engagement” in public policymaking, while also citing the governor’s authority, under a 1950 law, “to exercise authority over public assemblages as necessary to protect the health and safety of persons.”
The order says low-cost technologies are available to allow real-time access to the activities of public bodies, but also includes language under which a municipal board could post a transcript, recording or record of its proceedings if it was unable to find an alternative means of public access “due to economic hardship and despite best efforts.”
Described as a temporary measure, the order will remain in place until it is rescinded or the state of emergency, declared on Tuesday, is terminated.
The administration cited advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health that residents “to take extra measures to put distance between themselves and other people to further reduce the risk of being exposed to COVID-19.”
The CDC and DPH have also advised high-risk individuals, including people over the age of 60, anyone with underlying health conditions or a weakened immune system, and pregnant women, to avoid large gatherings, the administration noted.
Under the order, all members of a commission, board or committee may participate in a meeting by remote or virtual means.