Open-government regulations gain strength

In February, the Gloversville mayor and Common Council spent nearly 90 minutes behind closed doors in a meeting a state official later said appeared to violate the state’s Open Meetings Law.

In January, members of the new Montgomery County Legislature met privately with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer in apparent violation of the law.

Also in January, the Johnstown Board of Education declined to immediately provide the public with details about administrative raises. A?state official said the information should have been provided.

Those are just a few of the recent examples of local public officials violating the spirit of open-government laws.

New York state has an Open Meetings Law and regulations that require information be provided via written Freedom of Information Law requests in cases when public officials refuse to release information upon verbal request.

Although some public government bodies still violate the laws, the measures are becoming stronger thanks to updates that are giving the public and media more access to information.

“I used to describe the Open Meetings Law as having baby teeth, but they’ve grown,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

This week is Sunshine Week, an annual national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information. The initiative is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Freeman said over the last several years, the enforcement provisions of the Open Meetings Law have been amended to provide more power to the public when government officials conduct illegal meetings.

He said public boards or councils that conduct illegal private meetings that should have been conducted in public can be sued by “any aggrieved person,” including members of the media or public.

If the court reaches that same conclusion, the court is required to award attorney’s fees payable by the government, he said.

“Let’s say significant deliberation occurred in private and action was either taken in private in violation of the law or action was later taken even in public following those private deliberations, the court has the authority to nullify the action taken,” Freeman said.

He said both of those penalties have previously been imposed in the state, including lawsuits against a board of education in the Syracuse area. Freeman said the state Supreme Court and Appellate Division have shown they’re serious about compliance with the Open Meetings Law.

Freeman pointed out some public officials like to hold closed executive sessions for “personnel matters.”

“That can mean a thousand things and nobody knows whether the board is about to discuss a subject that can be discussed behind closed doors,” Freeman said. “The motion has to be more focused and give the public a clue that there really is a reason to enter executive session.”

Questionable activity

A number of instances have occurred over the last few years that involved questionable practices by elected and public officials.

In February, the Gloversville mayor and Common Council met behind closed doors in a meeting that was intended to be a Republican caucus.

However, the meeting included all members of the council – Republican and Democrats – and Freeman said it appears to have been illegal.

In January, members of the new Montgomery County Legislature met with Schumer to discuss some of his work that could affect the county.

Schumer and members of the legislature spoke behind closed doors about new legislation and regulations Schumer is pushing for in Congress, which Freeman said appeared to violate the Open Meetings Law.

The availability of records and information the public has a right to know also has been an issue locally.

In January, the Johnstown Board of Education declined to provide the media and public details about administrative raises. At that time, board President Paul VanDenburgh said information would be made public in the coming week. He said the raises were a “token of our appreciation” from the district to the administrators.

A day after the school board’s action, Freeman said the Johnstown school district should have released the information immediately.

In February 2012, a new state Disclosure of Records law went into effect. The law requires governments to make documents that will be discussed at a meeting available before the meeting upon request or on a website.

Keeping informed

Some local county and state officials said they support the intentions of the Open Meetings Law and understand the importance of members of the public being informed about what their government is doing.

Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said he believes the law in its current state “has a pretty good balance,” although he agreed with Freeman that some bodies don’t understand the use of the term “personnel” for holding private meetings.

“There is a lot of apathy in the world and in our region over government, where a lot of people don’t get involved or particularly interested in it, so it’s important to keep that decision making public and let them know what’s going on,” Stead said. “I’m not sure people these days have as much interest as they did maybe 20 years ago.”

“I’ve always been in favor of open government,” said state Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Niskayuna. “I think quite frankly the [Open Meetings Law] makes people in government look better. About 90 percent of the business of government should be open to the public and open to the press. It lets them know that we are doing the people’s work.”

Some local boards are making changes they say will help them to be more transparent.

Both the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services and Broadalbin-Perth Board of Education have made transitions to the online system BoardDocs, which allows members of the public to see every document the board may be looking at or discussing during any particular meeting from their home.

“One of the biggest reasons we went to BoardDocs is because we knew it was going to help us adequately meet the regulations regarding freedom of information and getting the information out to the public,” Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson said. “Our board president, Edward Szumowski, and I believe in full transparency and have built an enormous amount of trust within our school community and the taxpayers because of that.”

Future of law

Freeman said he doesn’t expect any radical changes to the Open Meetings Law in the near future, but he does believe more people will become aware of the rights they have as time progresses.

“There are so many ways that government touches people directly, and the public always has the right to know,” Freeman said.

Levi Pascher can be reached at lpascher@leaderherald.com.