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THE OPEN MEETINGS LAW
REPEATED VIOLATIONS HARM THE PUBLIC AND POINT TO A NEED FOR STIFFER PENALTIES

Expedience is no excuse for cloaking the dealings of a representative democracy in secrecy. That message needs to be driven home, by the public, to legislators and other elected leaders who have repeatedly violated the state's Open Meetings Law in recent weeks. Times of crisis demand more transparency and accountability, not less.

At least seven governing bodies have run afoul of the state's limited sunshine law recently, drawing members of other bodies and even the judiciary along with them. The Open Meetings Law is not a suggestion -- it's the law.

Typical of the lame excuses made in defense of closed-door meetings recently is this one from State Sen. Dale Volker, who took part in secret meetings with Erie County lawmakers concerning state help for a foundering county: It's more important to find ways to deal with the crisis than to "worry about technical rules."

No, it isn't. The "technical rules" ensure citizens' awareness of the deals being done in their name, and the performance of those they have elected to do them. Democracy dies if secrecy dominates. It thrives in sunshine.

The amount of needed "sunshine" is defined by state law and court rulings. Such laws vary from state to state; other states open a wider range of documents and discussions to that public light than does New York, while others allow more secrecy. Here, the law considers not only votes but the debates that lead to them as public matters. The carefully defined exceptions include personnel matters and contract negotiations.

The recent violations go far beyond that. Sunshine-law expert Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, notes that the doors of government tend to close when the issues get most controversial and most significant for the public -- when openness is most needed.

An Erie County government dealing with a fiscal crisis has run afoul of that law -- the penalty for which is largely public scorn -- repeatedly. Challenges by the media and citizens also have targeted Buffalo's financial control board, the Niagara County Legislature, the Erie Community College Board of Trustees, the Lancaster Town Board and the Buffalo and Orchard Park School Boards.

The repeated violations here, and the open flaunting of the law by those who are sworn to uphold it, should serve as convincing proof that this state's law needs teeth -- fines at the very least, and perhaps removal from office for officials who commit three "knowing violations," a three-strikes rule proposed by Freeman's committee.

It's time to have that debate. In public.