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COUNCIL SPLIT ON PROPRIETY OF SESSION

City Council members disagree over whether a dinner in their office Monday was an illegal meeting or just submarine sandwiches.

All five Council members adjourned to their office between the committee-of-the-whole session and regular meeting. Over the salads and the submarines, the city budget was discussed, four members agree, but only one said the conversation was anything more than general.

Council Chairwoman Frances M. Iusi did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Councilman Vince V. Anello said the dinner conversation turned into a discussion of the budget resolutions the Council was to consider at its meeting.

He said he objected and asked Deputy Corporation Counsel Thomas M. O'Donnell whether the meeting was illegal. O'Donnell, Anello claimed, agreed with him twice. He said he remained in the room eating his dinner but would not participate in the discussion.

"My Council colleagues decided to keep going along. When comments were addressed to me, I said at each point that this was illegal and I wanted to make my comments in public," Anello said.

"I refused to agree that we needed to leave our office with a consensus. . . . That's what happened, and I did make an effort, and I'm not justifying the action, but I think my performance at the meeting fully illustrates that I want to make my decisions in public."

Councilman Charles A. Walker agreed O'Donnell said holding a meeting without informing the media would be illegal. But Walker, Councilman Paul A. Dyster and Councilwoman Candra C. Thomason said they didn't think the session was any different from their usual discussions of city business in the Goose's Roost restaurant on dinner breaks between Council meetings.

Dyster and Thomason said no attempt was made to line up votes or reach consensus.

O'Donnell would not comment Tuesday when asked about the meeting. On Wednesday, neither he nor Corporation Counsel Ronald D. Anton returned phone calls.

"Where's the line that you don't cross?" Dyster asked. "I think I know where it is. There was a back-and-forth between Vince and Tom, but I didn't take it seriously. Was it a serious conversation? I didn't think so."

The 1977 Open Meetings Law "gives the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to the debates and watch the decision-making process in action," according to the state's Committee on Open Government.

Anytime a quorum of a public body gathers to discuss public business, the session must be open whether or not those present intend to take action, according to the committee.

Dyster said he agreed with the intent of the law, but maintained "in my mind for us to have submarine sandwiches was no big deal." He said he didn't think budget amendments were discussed.

But he did say that during the dinner, City Controller Maria C. Brown provided the Council with numbers showing the impact on tax rates of various possible changes to the homestead and nonhomestead portions, which the Council still must decide.

The Council's decision, expected Dec. 9, could change the tax rates.

Council members said that once Anello raised his objections, the door to the Council office was opened. Anello and Thomason said some effort was made to see if reporters remained in the building.

The law requires that the public and news media receive advance notice of every meeting. In the past, reporters have been told when the Council was adjourning upstairs for dinner breaks.

"You may not have been informed, but it wasn't a closed-door meeting or anything," Walker said. "Like I said, we were just having lunch."

In September, Thomason turned a budget briefing by the city administration for Anello and Iusi into an illegal meeting.

Apparently the administration had been briefing Council members one and two at a time to avoid a quorum, which would have required allowing reporters to attend. Thomason said she hadn't been able to get to City Hall earlier in the day, so she just asked if she could sit in.

e-mail: jscelsa@buffnews.com

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