Ahead of Wednesday night’s Chautauqua County Legislature meeting, Republican and Democratic lawmakers split to meet behind closed doors to discuss what they wanted. For the record, neither side was doing anything illegal.
Political caucuses are permitted under New York State’s open meeting law. Its purpose is to allow members gathered to discuss issues or disputes within their own parties.
It sounds harmless, but there is no public record of what is actually said in these private sessions. Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, said the time had come to end the practice.
“It’s really subject to huge abuse,” he said at the committee’s annual meeting held statewide via Zoom.
“The intention was to meet and discuss party business, but who knows what is being discussed behind those closed doors. … This is something that really needs to be changed. …Especially when the majority party can pretty much predetermine everything before the public meeting takes place and the public meeting simply becomes a show or a sham.
Fifteen of Chautauqua County’s lawmakers are from the Republican Party. It is a super-majority that has the ability to make decisions outside the public domain. Lawmakers may claim that no public business takes place behind those doors, but only those inside know that for sure. This is exactly why Wolf and his committee are seeking to end what appears to be a questionable practice.
Over the past two years — in a pandemic — open government has been far from perfect. However, some did their best to play by the rules.
In late March, members of the Jamestown Common Council held a retreat at the Robert H. Jackson Center to discuss funding for the American Rescue Plan Act. Here, with the public able to attend, the discussion focused on economic development, improving the housing stock and developing the workforce.
What was missing from those talks was what was revealed earlier this month at a press conference. The city, in an effort to respond to security concerns and calls from emergency medical services, decided to hire three new police officers and four additional firefighters.
“I am very grateful, and certainly very grateful, for the council’s support in hiring four additional firefighters for the fire department,” said Deputy Fire Chief Matt Coon. “We have an urgent need to respond to the current volume of EMS calls we have in the city of Jamestown. The hiring of additional staff will allow us to deploy a second ambulance which is certainly essential to try to alleviate this burden.
Although Jamestown’s process was open, its recent decision was not based on what happened at the retreat. A push for safer streets has come in recent months with 19 confirmed shootings last year with 90 weapons confiscated as well as a crisis in responding to 9-1-1 calls.
In Fredonia, the open meeting law last spring was completely ignored. Four members, who no longer serve, have decided to hold a retreat closed to the public to discuss the charter changes – a dry public issue though.
These elected officials have been supported in their illegal efforts to keep the public out by the law firm representing them in Webster Szanyi, LLC. Of course, the company’s loyalty is largely to these elected officials, not the residents who pay the taxes. Thanks to the village government, the firm was awarded nearly $235,000 in legal fees in 2021.
Incidentally, the representatives of the city of Dunkirk also have problems with executive meetings which have been well documented in the OBSERVER. During a meeting in March this year regarding an individual’s pay scale, the board met in executive session for what they considered a “staff issue”.
If you follow the law, that’s not a legitimate reason to exclude the public. The following are acceptable reasons for executive sessions in New York State: matters that would jeopardize public safety if disclosed; any matter that may disclose the identity of a law enforcement officer or information relating to an ongoing or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense that would jeopardize effective law enforcement if disclosed; discussions regarding proposed, pending or pending litigation; collective bargaining pursuant to Section 14 of the Civil Service Act; medical, financial, credit, or employment history of a particular person or company, or matters leading to appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or company; the preparation, marking or administration of examinations; and the proposed acquisition, sale or rental of immovable property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or the sale or exchange of securities held by the public body, but only where publicity would substantially affect the value of real estate or securities.
Citizens, however, have little power to ensure that open meeting laws with municipal or school councils are enforced other than by taking legal action. This needs to be resolved in the future, Wolf noted last week.
“In other states, there are independent agencies with enforcement powers…to address compliance and enforcement issues,” he said. “We don’t have that in New York. This is something we seek to change.
Local councils understand that there is no penalty for breaking a law relating to open meetings. That’s why it happens more than we really want to believe.
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pennsylvania. Send your comments to [email protected] or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.