A project to modernize the auditorium in the Suffolk County Legislature’s William H. Rogers Building in Hauppauge has been completed, allowing for upgraded videoconferencing capabilities to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The technological improvements made to the Rose Caracappa Legislature Auditorium, where Suffolk lawmakers typically convene around a large horseshoe to hold meetings and vote on legislation, allow for either remote legislative meetings or hybrid legislative meetings with some legislators attending in person in Hauppauge and others participating remotely by videoconference.
“In a year where the world relied on technology more than ever before, the Suffolk County Legislature was no different,” said Presiding Officer Rob Calarco. “With 18 legislators and others who sit in and around our horseshoe, it has not been possible for all of us to meet in person while complying with COVID-19 safety guidelines, so holding virtual meetings has been critical to allowing for the safe continuance of government operations during the pandemic. With the technology upgrades made to our auditorium, we have been able to continue to hold legislative meetings effectively and safely and are now able to bring some legislators back into the horseshoe with room to social distance as others participate remotely.”
Monitors that display the main videoconferencing screen have been installed inside the horseshoe and facing the public seating area so that those attending meetings in person can see all participating legislators. Additionally, the sound and video booth in the back of the auditorium and audio and visual equipment have been upgraded to minimize streaming interruptions.
Since the onset of the pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been issuing executive orders exempting municipal boards from certain provisions of the state’s Open Meetings Law. The waiver has made it easier for municipalities to conduct meetings remotely at a time when meeting in person could be difficult or unsafe. When the waiver to the Open Meetings Law ends, Presiding Officer Calarco said, the upgrades to the legislature auditorium will help ensure that the body can still utilize videoconferencing moving forward.
“Since the legislature will likely need to operate remotely in at least some capacity for the foreseeable future, these upgrades give us the flexibility to continue to use videoconferencing in full compliance with the Open Meetings Law,” said Presiding Officer Calarco. “Videoconferencing is no longer the way of the future; it is the way of the present. Having the ability to use this technology in our auditorium could have many benefits in the long run.”
The Open Meetings Law allows for lawmakers to participate in legislative meetings by videoconference if certain provisions are met. Presiding Officer Calarco has introduced legislation to set forth videoconferencing rules that comply with the law and that would allow lawmakers to participate in legislative meetings by videoconferencing from a public location.
“Suffolk County rose to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting in place technology that enabled us to continue to do the work of the people,” said Majority Leader Susan A. Berland, co-sponsor of a resolution to fund the project. “These upgrades have and will continue to allow those who might not otherwise have the ability to participate in legislative proceedings the chance to voice their concerns. Now that we have this important technology in place, I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to ensure that County government is increasingly accessible and transparent for all our constituents.”
“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it had on every aspect of our daily lives, the legislature needed to reimagine the way we conduct our meetings and upgrade the video equipment in our auditoriums,” added Legislator Jason Richberg, who also co-sponsored a resolution to help fund the project. “While the pandemic created the need, these upgrades will continue to be utilized far after this pandemic ends, and beyond. This upgrade brings us into the 21st century and will help provide transparency and make our legislative meetings more accessible to all.”
The $300,000 project utilized funding that was diverted from other projects to reflect changed priorities after the pandemic hit. Because the technology upgrades were necessitated by the COVID emergency, Presiding Officer Calarco said the legislature will be submitting for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Legislative leaders have made strides in upgrading technology over the last few years. In 2016, a dynamic four-camera video streaming system replaced a fixed one-camera system in the Hauppauge auditorium, where the majority of the legislature’s meetings are held. Also that year, a camera system was installed in the Maxine S. Postal Auditorium at the Evans K. Griffing Building in Riverside to allow for video streaming when the legislature meets there. In early 2020, the legislature’s server and backup systems were upgraded to expand streaming services to include committee meetings, which previously were streamed with only audio.