The Genesee County Legislature this afternoon revisited the possibility of adopting rules to cover videoconferencing of its meetings and -- while not coming to any binding decision – is on board with in-person attendance for the purposes of a committee quorum and voting, and allowing remote access for non-committee members to participate.
During a 38-minute Committee of the Whole discussion at the Old County Courthouse and via Zoom, legislators agreed to a “hybrid” approach to videoconferencing as proposed by Chair Rochelle Stein.
The debate followed up on a proposed resolution drafted last August that sought to place guidelines on videoconferencing, a practice necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent executive orders by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which suspended the Open Meetings Law to provide for remote participation in legislative and committee meetings.
That executive order continues in place, although it was reported during today’s meeting that it is set to expire in two days. Stein said Committee of the Whole discussion was called now “to be somewhat ahead of the game.”
County Attorney Kevin Earl emphasized that the “major issue” to achieve a quorum and to facilitate legal voting when videoconferencing is that “you can’t do it by telephone … the legislator has to be available to be seen and be seen by the other legislators to participate formally.”
Earl, with input from Legislature Clerk Pamela LaGrou and County Manager Matt Landers, wrote a seven-point amendment to the original resolution (which was not acted upon), with a key stipulation as follows:
“The videoconference shall be conducted in compliance with state law and ensure that all legislators and members of the public have the opportunity to see and hear a legislator videoconferencing and such videoconferencing legislator can see and hear the other members of the legislature.”
Earl said there aren’t a lot of cases concerning this matter but there are many opinions, including those of the attorneys connected to the Committee on Open Government, an organization that holds a lot of weight with judges.
The attorney also noted that if videoconferencing is used, the public notice of the meeting must inform the public as such, identify the locations for the meeting and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of those locations.
Genesee County has been able to acquire the technology – legislators call it “the owl” – to be able to show all meeting participants on the Zoom call. This prompted Earl to say that he would support having legislators not on a particular committee to be able to call in and participate via Zoom as long as they weren’t going to vote or had no bearing on the required quorum.
Earl also proposed that the legislature could adopt a rule limiting the number of times a legislator could “attend” a meeting through videoconferencing, specifically three times in a calendar year.
Stein then said she understood that most of the legislators “would like to have the meetings in person for those that serve on the committees themselves and (for those not on the committee) to be able to participate through Zoom, and have that kind of hybrid opportunity."
“That’s where I come down on this question but right now our rules don’t allow even that to happen.”
At that point, the individual legislators gave their thoughts. They all stated that it was the responsibility of the committee member to be in the room unless it was an emergency, and also were open to permitting legislators not on the committee to follow along via Zoom.
“I would like to see everybody show up, except for some extreme situation … but I really think you have the responsibility to be here,” Gordon Dibble said, adding that he would support those not on the committee signing in remotely.
Christian Yunker said he was in favor of the hybrid model, noting that the opportunity for others to listen in and participate “probably is valuable enough that the rest of us should do that at least for the foreseeable future.”
Brooks Hawley said “if you’re on the committee, you should be here, but if you want to see what is going on and you have a prior engagement, such as work, family commitment or something like that, I think you should be able to do that (participate remotely).”
Earl advised that the legislature can’t prohibit videoconferencing but also isn’t required to implement guidelines on videoconferencing.
Gary Maha said he was OK with the hybrid approach, but added that “we’re elected to represent our constituents and if you could be here, you should be here."
Chad Klotzbach agreed, stating that videoconferencing “has created a platform for people to actually see what we’re doing.”
Marianne Clattenburg suggested postponing any formal vote until after the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have no problem with having people listening to the discussion remotely, but I think voting remotely, I’m against that and would hate to see that become a precedent,” Clattenburg said.
In closing, Stein summarized the points brought out through the discussion – in-person for a quorum and voting, remote participation for others, expanding the technology to include a laptop at the podium for public speakers, and providing additional technical support for the legislative clerk.
When the legislature does decide to act upon formalizing the rules and adopting the amended resolution, the matter would go to the Ways & Means Committee for further discussion and a vote.
Legislators agreed to wait until after the pandemic, with Maha suggesting “the simpler the better.”
With that, Stein said, “I hope the executive order is extended” and adjourned the meeting.
Grant Would Assess Broadband Situation
In another development, the legislature during its regular meeting approved applying for a $95,000 grant from the Northern Borders Regional Commission’s State Economic & Infrastructure Development Investment Program to subsidize a countywide broadband inventory/availability study and develop a subsequent business plan.
Landers said the county was informed of the grant by the Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council, which is currently being led by former Genesee County Manager Jay Gsell.
“This grant would provide a pretty comprehensive broadband study throughout the county,” Landers said. “The G/FLRPC is submitting this on our behalf and it’s a $95,000 grant with a 20-percent local match ($19,000). If we get it, we could find what our gaps are in broadband access in our community and it would also fund a survey of the homes to get a better understanding of where the gaps are and the level of residents’ desire for broadband access.”
Landers said two other counties may partner with Genesee to increase the odds of getting the grant.
“Federal funds are out there to help alleviate this, but we need to understand what our gaps really are before we can go after those bigger grants,” Landers said.
Landers Warns of 'Cluster Pop-up'
Landers reported that the COVID-19 positivity rate is down, the number of people receiving the vaccine is up and many restrictions have been lifted, but urges citizens to remain vigilant.
"It's easy to get cluster pop-ups," he said. "We had 20 to 25 cases (recently) that were linked to a few events -- a birthday party here and a couple of other events there."