Posted tagged ‘Open Meetings Law’

Does Running A Village/Town With Three People Make Sense?

January 30, 2012

In the Buffalo, New York area a public fed up with the cost of government has over the past several years voted to reduce the size of the Erie County Legislature from 17 members to 11, and the Buffalo City Council has gone from 13 members to 9. Kevin Gaughan a citizen activist has led the charge to reduce the number of elected officials serving at the town and village level.

As a result of  recent referendum votes several towns and villages have reduced the size of their governing boards from 5 members to 3. Going to 3 members due to the New York State Open Meetings Law poses some logistical challenges for elected officials. Under the Open Meetings Law, whenever a majority of elected officials meet to discuss public business it has to be in a public meeting that the public has been made aware of so that they can attend if interested. On a 3 member Board a majority is two, which means according to Robert Freeman Executive Director of the State Committee on Open Government:

“Even if the only subject to be considered could validly be discussed during an executive session, a board would nonetheless be required to give notice and convene its meeting open to the public,” Freeman said. “Now [under a three-member board] board members can’t talk to each other about town business. They can’t meet for a cup of coffee, they can’t even email one another.”

In the Town of West Seneca, which downsized from 5 members to 3, in order to communicate and adhere to the Open Meetings Law, West Seneca board members direct questions to the town attorney, who contacts board members to get their input, then he lets everyone know what the others are thinking.

According to Gaughan, “The disease that afflicts government is lack of transparency, closed door deals help erode confidence in government.” Hamburg Supervisor Steven J. Walters believes the ability to call up a councilman to get input is invaluable. Orchard Park Councilwoman Nan Ackerman, whose seat is being eliminated in the downsizing, believes the critical mass necessary for effective brainstorming will be lost. “It’s so much easier to come up with ideas when you’re talking together, if you think about it all by yourself, you’re like a rat on a treadmill. Nothing new is coming to you because you’re not hearing any new ideas.”

Kevin Gaughan who led the downsizing movement in Western New York believes the area will benefit from smaller boards. Decisions will move from the back room to the board room, where citizens can see how their government operates. “We actually strengthen enforcement of the Open Meetings Law”.

Gaughan additionally  notes that the Buffalo area has lost: 272,000 people since 1976, 30 percent of young people between 18 and 34, and the ability to fund the ever-increasing cost of government. “I’m hopeful that everyone is going to take this opportunity to rethink how we can govern ourselves more efficiently,” he said.

In addition to the limitations on communications among Board members, some are concerned that the power of running a town or village is being determined by the majority vote of two people.

Do you agree that elected officials being unable to discuss government business in private is a problem or should all discussions take place at a public meeting? Is two people constituting a majority vote for running a local government a concern for you?

The Public Has A Right To Know

April 6, 2011

It seems as though every week I read about a government entity violating open meeting laws or freedom of information requirements. Many school boards, town boards or city councils operate under the incorrect assumption that all personnel matters or all legal matters can only be discussed in an executive session. I once attended a public meeting of a commission appointed by a County Legislature to discuss reducing the number of legislators. Although I was the only member of the public in attendance a motion was made to go into executive session so that the members could candidly discuss their thoughts, which could lead to litigation.  When I explained that as a member of the public I had a right to hear their deliberations and that potential litigation was not a valid reason for a private meeting I was asked to leave.

Robert Freeman as Executive Director of the New York State Committee On Open Government, does a great job in issuing advisory opinions and educating the public about their right to know what government officials are doing. Every year the New York State Committee On Open Government issues a report on their activities and recommendations for improving public access to government information. The most recent report to the New York State Legislature makes the following recommendations:

  • Require that Certain Records be Posted On-line – government can be a better partner with the public through proactive disclosure, by making records and data available online as a matter of practice and policy, avoiding the need for Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests.
  • Records Discussed at Open Meetings Should Generally be Available Prior to or at Meetings – often a public body will review and discuss a particular record at an open meeting, but the record is not available or distributed to people attending the meeting.
  • Ensure that the Names, Titles, Salaries and Public Office Addresses of Public Employees are Clearly Accessible

  • When Tentative Collective Bargaining Agreements Have Been Reached and Their Terms Distributed to Union Members for Approval, They Should be Available to the Public – Even though labor agreements may involve millions of dollars during the term of the agreement, rarely does the public have an opportunity to gain access to the agreement or, therefore, analyze its contents and offer constructive commentary.

  • Limit the Exemption Regarding Political Caucuses in Order to Guarantee that Public Business is Discussed in Public – The New York Open Meetings Law contains an exemption concerning political committees, conferences and caucuses. As such the Democratic and Republican caucuses are allowed to meet in private to discuss political and public business. The entire City Council in Buffalo consists of Democrats. Under the law the City Council could meet in private to discuss matters. To their credit the Buffalo City Council does not hold such private meetings.

What do you think about these recommendations?