by Jay Lawson
As a journalist who regularly attends board meetings, it is my job to observe and report local government activities to readers in the community.
I’ve been doing this for years and years (and years).
A couple weeks ago something seemed out of whack at the Town of Webb’s regular October meeting. The board had a slender agenda, which concluded in about half an hour. That’s quick, but not unheard of (Sometimes business is light).
The peculiar part was that the meeting was not adjourned for another full hour-and-a-half.
In effect, the Board wasn’t lacking in business, it simply conducted three-quarters of its discussions in Executive Session, outside of public view.
That left me with little to report compared to the time that the board was active.
In the interest of the public and the Town Board (any public board actually), I am writing this article, which I consider to be more of a public service announcement, though it may come across as a criticism.
But let’s back up…
At a September 22 meeting of the Town Board, Dr. Rintrona’s prospective dental successor asked the board to consider a lease request involving her use of town-owned space at the health center.
She requested that a previous rent-free arrangement be allowed to continue. She also wanted the lease term changed from one to five years. And she wanted an existing clause that would allow for termination by the town (with six months notice) to be eliminated.
This news is of interest to our community, and we reported it in our September 25th edition.
The Board did not discuss the request or vote on it on September 22 (They didn’t have a copy of the existing lease agreement) but agreed to discuss it at the board’s October 13th monthly meeting. At that time, it was presumed that the dentist’s request would either be accepted or that the town would work up a counter-proposal.
Councilman Mike Ross said that was ideal. The October meeting would allow for adequate public involvement, he said.
So far, so good. (I’m a news reporter with a job to do.)
But when the October 13th meeting arrived, the Dental Lease was ushered out of public view and into Executive Session.
A second issue of significance involved a request from the Old Forge Ambulance Corps.
Representatives of the Corps said there was a need for the Town of Webb to contribute to the cost of staffing continuous Advanced Life Support (ALS) service in the community. They asked if $200K could be included in the 2016 budget.
This news is also of considerable importance to the community. We reported on it in our September 10th edition.
But as with the Dental Lease, when the Ambulance Corps issue reappeared at the October 13th meeting, it was ushered into Executive Session.
Here’s a fact. People that serve on our Town Boards and School Boards are “you and me,” for the most part. I’ve been around long enough to know that. They are people who care about their community and are willing to do loads of hard work on all of our behalf. They miss countless dinners and family time for relatively modest pay. And this Town Board is no different. I have known these people for years, both personally and in their elective capacity. I have observed their competence and hard work, and can attest to their dedication.
So, it’s with love that I bring up the Open Meetings Law of New York State. It opens with this legislative declaration:
“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.
“The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.”
How does an Executive Session happen?
It’s a decision of the “public body,” in this case the board. A board member must make a motion and receive a majority vote to enter executive session.
Having said that, Robert Freeman, Executive Director of New York State Committee on Open Government has stated: “Meetings of public bodies…must be conducted open to the public, unless there is a basis for entry into executive session.”
A public body, according to law, may conduct executive session ONLY for the following.
• Matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
• Any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;
• Information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
• Discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
• Collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law;
• The medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;
• The preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
• The proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.
Back to the Dentist Lease request and the Ambulance Corps request…
The reason the board gave for entering Executive Session was to discuss “Contract Negotiations.” But this is not one of the lawful reasons for entering executive session, as stated above. If it were, why did we publicly deliberate the St. Elizabeth’s contract?
In addition, the NYS courts have ruled specifically regarding “Contract Negotiations.” In the Oswego County case of Bergren v. Valette, the Supreme Court ruled that “contract negotiations” regarding water and sewer services had been illegally conducted in executive session in that “contract negotiations” did not amount to a legal reason. The court further stated that a replaying of the closed deliberations in open session might be sufficient in “curing” the violation.
The whole Ambulance Corps issue started with a request that the board budget monies to supplement ALS staff. At some point a contract became needed, but it’s not clear when or why, as this was not discussed in open session. When I asked a Town Board member (one of four councilpeople and the supervisor) for an explanation, I was told there would be no public comment on matters “that are in executive session.”
Discussion of executive session material is not prohibited, by the way, according to Executive Director Freeman.
He has stated that “privileged” information is such, due to a privileged nature it may possess. The fact that it was introduced while in executive session has no bearing. Therefore, executive session information is not “inherently unsharable” or secret.
As for the Dental Office Lease, the limited discussion of it in open session has directly resulted in confusion among the public.
At the October 13th meeting, Councilwoman Moore described misinformation that’s been circulating among the public. She said it is wrongly believed by some that the new dentist will only be part-time.
The public may have gotten that impression from an article in this newspaper, truth be told. But in fairness to this newspaper, here is what a councilperson told me about the new dentist when I was compiling information for that article…
“She thought [practicing in Old Forge] would be perfect because it wouldn’t be a totally full-time practice—probably three days a week… She doesn’t need to work full-time.”
Once again, this is not a knock against anyone. We have great, hardworking people on this board, and I don’t mean to suggest any negative intent, because I know there is none. But the more “open” that government is in general, the more informed we are and the less confusion.