Local governments are adapting to an emergency order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that allows them to hold official meetings electronically through teleconferencing or videoconferencing -- which would also prevent the public from attending meetings in person, as usually guaranteed by the state’s Open Meetings Law.


The order was one of dozens issued as part of the state’s response to the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.


Many local government bodies are already moving to “virtual” meetings, with all members taking part through phone or videoconferencing.


The Steuben County Legislature plans to hold its regular monthly meeting, set for 10 a.m. Monday, “virtually.”


The live meeting will also be accessible to the public online, in keeping with the spirit of public access to government.


Legislature Chairman Scott Van Etten told The Leader the technical aspects are still being worked out, led by Legislature Clerk Brenda Mori, who is coordinating with the county’s Information Technology team.


Van Etten noted that most online conferencing systems don’t offer a “two-tiered” system that would give different abilities to legislators from those available to the public. So, one of the issues being worked on is how to make sure the meeting can be held without disruptions by people who access the meeting and add intentional or unintentional noise, for example.


The Legislature has already had to work out rules to keep order amongst themselves, to avoid having 17 legislators, plus other top county officials, trying to speak at once, Van Etten said.


“It’s going to be difficult,” he added.


There’s also the question of how to handle parts of meetings that the public would normally not have access to.


“We do have an executive session we have to do [during Monday’s meeting],” Van Etten said. “We’re trying to figure out how to do it.”


He said that may, for the near future, involve having members call into a separate conference for the closed portion of the meeting.


Bath Central School District Superintendent Joe Rumsey told The Leader the Board of Education was holding Thursday’s meeting in the district office, but closed to in-person attendance by the public.


The district will be live-streaming meetings online as long as the current situation continues, he said.


Rumsey said continuing to hold a meeting with administrators and board members in a room together -- with space to allow people to keep appropriate distance from each other -- is an “experiment” as they decide how to proceed.


He added that with the constantly changing situation, the board is likely to meet every week for the near future, so there will be plenty of opportunities to learn and get things set up right.


Kristin O’Neill, of the New York state Committee on Open Government, told The Leader the governor’s order has led to “uncharted territory,” as officials work out the appropriate level of public access and how to make that work technologically.


One question, raised by the situation with the Bath School Board, is whether in-person meetings that are closed to the public could still allow access to reporters.


O’Neill noted that it would be out of keeping with the law and the executive order to bar the public, yet allow “the press” as a group into a government meeting.


Officials noted that despite the terrible circumstances, there is one small upside to the changes they are being forced to make in the current crisis atmosphere.


“It may actually increase participation [to have meetings available online],” said Corning-Painted Post Superintendent Mike Ginalski. “I believe this crisis is driving us toward a format which, in some places, could become the norm once everyone becomes familiar with the technology.”


Van Etten echoed that, noting that the Legislature will in the future be required to make meetings available online anyway.


C-PP, according to Ginalski, is still working out details for online access to future meetings. Tuesday’s monthly board meeting was held largely by videoconference, but some officials were still at the district office and that meeting was officially open to the public.


That doesn’t mean Ginalski has to like the new format.


“I am an old-school guy,” he told The Leader. “I like paper versus computers, cable TV, eye contact when shaking hands and your word is your bond. So, I hate the format a lot. But, it’s clear to me that I am going to have to get used to using it and I believe that at least the April meeting will be a ‘virtual’ meeting based on the COVID-19 virus [situation]. The business of the district continues whether there is a pandemic or not, so it’s the only way to have a meeting with our board.”