A newly adopted local law allows absent Town Board members to participate in meetings remotely under 'extraordinary circumstances.' Photo: Alek Lewis

The Riverhead Town Board adopted a local law this week allowing board members to participate virtually in meetings in certain “extraordinary circumstances.”

Board members approved the amendment 3-0, with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Council Member Bob Kern absent, during a special meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Extraordinary circumstances is defined in the law as a “disability, illness, caregiving responsibilities, or any other significant or unexpected factor or event which precludes the member’s physical attendance at such meeting.” Members participating virtually may vote and participate using videoconferencing during the meeting, but they do not count towards the in-person quorum required to hold the meeting — which in the case of the Town Board is three members.

The new local law applies to the Town Board only.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Town Board looks to adopt law allowing board members to attend meetings virtually

The local law is based on a draft created by the Committee on Open Government, a state entity which oversees and advises on the Open Meetings Law. The amendment was considered after a pandemic-related executive order permitting government meetings to be conducted virtually expired in September, after Gov. Kathy Hochul decided not to renew the order. 

Previous to its amendment by the state legislature in the 2022 budget to allow for virtual participation, the Open Meetings Law required members of a public body to attend in person at the designated place of the meeting in order to participate.

If a member is unable to participate in-person, they must give notice to other board members no later than four business days prior to the scheduled meeting and provide timely notice to the public, the law states. If an unexpected factor or event arises within that time period that precludes the member from attending in-person, the meeting notice must be updated to reflect that information. 

Meetings using videoconferencing must also be broadcasted to the “extent practicable,” and recorded and posted online. Riverhead Town has been televising meetings of the Town Board, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency on the cable television government access channel since 2017. The meetings are also live-streamed on the town’s website and recordings of the meetings are available there on demand. 

The law also requires that the Town Board must provide the opportunity for the public to participate via videoconferencing during public comment sections of the meeting if a board member is participating virtually.

The Town Board started allowing people to speak during its public comment portions and in public hearings through Zoom during the pandemic. The board saw backlash from residents when it tried to halt that practice in July 2021, when coronavirus cases were low, and reinstated virtual participation the next month, but for public hearings only. At the start of 2022, the board announced that public access to meetings would be virtual only, due to a new surge in coronavirus cases. Aguiar announced in May last year that virtual participation, for both public comments and public hearings, would continue “permanently,” but took no official legislative action making it official.

The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals currently allow the public to participate virtually only during public hearings, but not during public comment portions on resolutions or during the “open” comment portion, where the public can comment on any matter related to the body.

The board of the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency is also pursuing the adoption of a resolution allowing the same videoconferencing rules. The board will hold a public hearing on the resolution on Feb. 6 at 5 p.m. at Riverhead Town Hall.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com