Using the excuse of an executive session and offering flimsy explanation is an evasive and self-serving tactic to conduct the public’s business in secret; doing so without stating the reason is even worse.
As News staff reporter Jay Tokasz wrote, the state’s Open Meetings Law is being flouted on a regular basis by some governments and boards. Violation of the law is punishable by a court order requiring the members of the public body to participate in a training session with staff of the Committee on Open Government. And there are other steps for those willing to go there.
The Open Meetings Law used to have “baby teeth,” according to Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. But the teeth, as he said, have grown.
For example, if a court rules in favor of someone who files a lawsuit alleging that a board has illegally engaged in a private discussion, the court must award attorneys’ fees payable by the government to the petitioner. It is a fairly significant penalty.
Also, if substantial deliberations that illegally occurred in private result in action by the board, the court has the authority to invalidate the action taken. That, too, is a significant penalty.
The reality is, most people don’t initiate costly and timely lawsuits, especially without knowing what the court will conclude. Still, the enforcement provisions of the Open Meetings Law says, among other things, that a person can seek injunctive relief, which is a quick proceeding.
Another pending option might be to use a constitutional convention to impose stricter consequences for violations of this law. Among the decisions New Yorkers will make in next week’s elections is whether to call for such a convention.
Examples of violations are rife, and include the University at Buffalo Council, which has been improperly moving its meetings behind closed doors for years. All such violations should raise the public’s ire.
The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, a local watchdog group, noted in a recently released report that governmental bodies in Erie and Niagara counties “regularly” declined to state why they move their discussions behind closed doors.
Town and village boards were special offenders on 76 of 78 occasions over a six-month period. The report found inadequate explanations for moving into executive sessions.
The Lewiston Town Board entered into executive session 11 times between Jan. 1 and July 1. It was the most of any public body. The Cheektowaga Town Board followed with 10 executive sessions. And the West Seneca and Tonawanda town boards spent a large measure of time in executive sessions. West Seneca Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan disputed any suggestion that the board had not properly cited reasons to enter into executive sessions.
The Erie County Legislature and Buffalo Common Council stood in the slender group of five public bodies that did not engage in any executive sessions during that time. The coalition report did not include the UB Council.
Freeman suggested people bring copies of the Open Meetings Law to public meetings. It is a good idea. It can be found here: dos.ny.gov/coog/openmeetlaw.html
As Freeman noted in paraphrasing Judge Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The Open Meetings Law is sunlight.