Town of Webb Board weighs in on Executive Session topic

Town of Webb resident Ed Weidman addressed the town board at its November 10th monthly meeting, asking Supervisor Ted Riehle about an editorial that appeared in The Weekly Adirondack’s October 22nd edition.

The editorial dealt with the topic of “Executive Sessions” (public governing bodies conducting business outside of public view).

“Has there been any discussion…with the board as far as what is proper and not proper for what’s being discussed?” Widman said.

“I believe we are doing what is proper, [having] consulted the Town Attorney,” said Supervisor Riehle.

Resident Larry Murphy followed up with a question later in the meeting.

“I thought I heard you say that you were discussing this with the attorney and following his advice. Has our town attorney opined on the issues that were raised in the newspaper, as to whether [the matters under discussion] were proper to be held in executive session?” Murphy said.

“I did not discuss that with Dick,” Riehle said, referring to Town Attorney Richard Frye.

“Does the board plan to discuss this with the Town Attorney?” Murphy said.

Attorney Frye, who was present, offered to speak to the issue.

To recap for the Board and others, Councilwoman Kate Russell synopsized the editorial.

“An article was written by Jay Lawson in The Weekly Adirondack…questioning whether this board goes into Executive Session with true authority…for the topics it [discusses],” she said.

She said Lawson cited the requirements of Open Meetings Law in making his argument.

In addressing the issue for the Board and public audience, Attorney Frye used the Dental Office lease as a discussion point.

He said the executive session held in that case was appropriate.

“At that stage, we were negotiating a lease,” Frye said, adding that the closed session allowed the board to figure out its position as part of the negotiation.

Councilwoman Mary Brophy Moore said her opinion on the matter differs somewhat.

She referred to a point Lawson made in his editorial.

She said he was right in stating that the contract had been discussed already in open meetings on several occasions.

Therefore the rationale for executive session was less certain, she said.

But, Moore said the decision seemed sensible at the time.

“After thinking about it afterwards, I think probably not,” she said.

She said this conclusion was based on her own reading and interpretation of the Open Meetings Law.

“We probably could or should have not called for executive session on that particular issue,” she said.

“I think it’s open to interpretation, but I felt afterwards that [Lawson] was right. Just my opinion,” she said.

Lawson reiterated his contention that discussion of “contract negotiations” was not an acceptable basis for entering into lawful executive session, citing Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

Attorney Frye said that Freeman’s interpretations of Open Meetings Law don’t always jibe with his own and those of others.

“I don’t always agree with what he says… [so] there may be differences of opinion on that,” he said.

“Whenever you are negotiating an agreement—a contract—the board has to discuss it from the standpoint that…you are dealing with another party; and you can’t always disclose everything that you think on that particular subject, at that particular time,” Frye said.

So, in that sense, Frye said, he believes “contract negotiation” to fall under the umbrella of “litigation” talks, which are allowable.

Lawson, however, contended that neither the term “contract negotiation” nor “litigation” was an accurate description of what the board was discussing.

The deliberations were more public policy based, he said, in that the board was discussing how best to function in its role as administrator of a town-owned property.

This is not dissimilar to talks that establish McCauley lift ticket prices or rental fees at the pavilion, he said.

Additionally, the talks at this stage were independent of the negotiating parties in the sense that the prospective tenant had already communicated her requirements in final form.

The board’s response  to those requirements would be derived presumably from deliberations on how best to serve the taxpayers—deliberations that are rightly done in open session, according to Lawson.

“There wasn’t much negotiation, that’s for sure,” Frye agreed.

Councilwoman Moore spoke to the board’s integrity, saying that no decisions had been made in bad faith, nor was the error egregious.

Councilman J.B. Herron agreed that the talks probably should have occurred in open session, but said that the issue would have come before the public regardless, prior to any vote.

Lawson requested that the deliberations of the board, that occurred in executive session, be described to the public, including any dissenting opinions, “so we can see the thinking of the board, and what they were putting into the decision.”

“I think that’s kind of the whole point: Just being privy to the machinations of the board—the viewpoints of the individual members and the dynamic [of the discussion. It’s important that the public see] the interacting that takes place, not just the presentation of a resolution and the voting on it. That’s my opinion, and I think it’s consistent with the spirit of the Open Meetings Law,” Lawson said.

Supervisor Ted Riehle took the opportunity to share his thoughts on the dental lease issue.

“As one board member, I supported the idea of continuing with the existing agreement for a five-year period. But what [the applicant] countered back with was five years [along with] two renewable five-year periods. I was not in agreement with that,” Riehle said.

“I felt that the board should have the ability to revisit that agreement in five years, after [the new dentist] has had time to establish her business… It shouldn’t be an open-ended 15 years without any other town input on the agreement.”

Councilman J.B. Herron said his view was similar to Riehle’s.

“I was leaning that way, too. I didn’t think a 15-year agreement was [reasonable],” he said, adding that it would obligate future boards to the decision of an earlier board.

Councilwoman Russell said she has forwarded additional questions for the lease applicant through Attorney Frye, and is awaiting those responses.

Russell said she also requested and received research materials from Town Clerk Nanci Russell, regarding the history of the town’s contractual arrangements with the health center’s dental providers.

“Reading through all of that packet that Nanci provided me, gave me more questions that I would ask once we further the discussion and hear more from [the applicant and her attorney],” Russell said.

Councilman Mike Ross said the lease applicant’s original request had been simply to secure the exact contract that had been afforded Dr. Rintrona.

But then it was requested that changes be allowed, he said.

With those changes, it became incumbent on the board to examine the ramifications and determine the town’s best interest, Ross said..

“That’s our job, to go over this thing and see if it’s okay.”

The board is not doing its work properly if it’s not asking all the proper questions, Ross said.

Attorney Frye said he expects to hear from the applicant soon, and that the process should continue moving forward.

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