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Small boards confront big challenges; Downsized groups anticipate adapting

Since winning election in November, Alden Supervisor Harry "Bud" Milligan has been getting together with two councilmen every Monday morning at Town and Country Family Restaurant. They talk about how they will run town government come Jan. 1.

But starting Sunday, there will be no more of those informal conversations over coffee in Alden, Hamburg or Orchard Park.

That's because the town boards in those communities were downsized from five to three members, and state law prohibits a majority of the board from meeting privately.

The loss of the informal planning and quick telephone calls looms as one of the biggest challenges to running a three-person town board.

But not to everyone.

Downsizing guru Kevin Gaughan, who campaigned in the three towns in favor of the downsizing, says local officials are creating a problem where none exists.

"The disease that afflicts government is lack of transparency," he said. "Closed door deals help erode confidence in government."

But Hamburg Supervisor Steven J. Walters said the ability to call up a councilman to get input is invaluable.

"Decisions are just going to have to be made without the board members being aware of what the decisions are until the next board meeting," he said. "You're going to lose that second set of eyes on things."

With fewer board members, each will have more committees and town departments to oversee.

"Each of the three of us is spread more thin," Walters said. "At the same time, do we have to get together more frequently, which is going to spread us thinner?"

The state's Open Meetings Law requires advance notice of meetings and the ability of the public to attend and observe those. Any time a majority of a public body conducts public business, that is a meeting covered by the law, said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

"Even if the only subject to be considered could validly be discussed during an executive session, a board would nonetheless be required to give notice and convene its meeting open to the public," Freeman said. "Now [under a three-member board] board members can't talk to each other about town business. They can't meet for a cup of coffee, they can't even email one another."

That should not be a problem for elected officials, Gaughan said.

"The way for town governments to operate under the Open Meetings Law is to obey it," he said. "I'm hopeful our politicians will look upon this as an opportunity to innovate and adapt."

The town boards of Evans and West Seneca have had three members the past two years, and Gaughan said "the sky has not fallen" in those towns. While outgoing West Seneca Supervisor Wallace Piotrowski has said it works well, incoming Supervisor Sheila Meegan said there are issues.

"A five-minute problem sometimes can take an hour to solve," said Meegan, who is a town councilwoman.

That's because to adhere to the law, West Seneca board members direct questions to the town attorney, who contacts board members to get their input, then he lets everyone know what the others are thinking.

"You're not saving money," she said. "You're losing opportunity."

The Alden board members will get a raise of nearly $1,500 next year, to $12,500, in recognition of the extra work.

Milligan, in Alden, said his board may have more work sessions, and might schedule one during a weekday morning.

Orchard Park board members have been talking about the changes for weeks.

Supervisor Janis Colarusso jokingly asked if she should change her affiliation from Democrat to Republican to match the two councilmen.

"Do you think it would make life easier around here?" she asked. "Changing my affiliation would be like changing my religion, but I will do it so we can get the job done here."

It's not just the difficulty upholding the Open Meetings Law that worries some. It is the consolidation of power -- where a majority of two would make major decisions, the loss of input from two people and the inability to get other opinions on things that crop up daily, giving more power to the supervisor to make decisions.

Colarusso said she often contacts board members between meetings with normal operational questions: "Should I do this? What do you think about that? How's this sound? What's your opinion?"

Orchard Park Councilwoman Nan Ackerman, whose seat is being eliminated in the downsizing, said the critical mass necessary for effective brainstorming will be lost.

"It's so much easier to come up with ideas when you're talking together," she said. "If you think about it all by yourself, you're like a rat on a treadmill. Nothing new is coming to you because you're not hearing any new ideas."

The man who fostered the downsizing movement in Western New York said the area stands to benefit from smaller boards. Decisions will move from the back room to the board room, where citizens can see how their government operates.

"We actually strengthen enforcement of the Open Meetings Law," Gaughan said.

And while elected officials worry about what will be lost by the elimination of two seats, Gaughan notes what the area already has lost: 272,000 people since 1976, 30 percent of young people between 18 and 34, and the ability to fund the ever-increasing cost of government.

"I'm hopeful that everyone is going to take this opportunity to rethink how we can govern ourselves more efficiently," he said.

There is talk of a petition being circulated in West Seneca to return the board to five members, and Ackerman is urging Orchard Park residents to support the change in two years, the first time it could come for a revote. But others aren't so quick to call for a new referendum.

"When I was out campaigning, I met as many people for it as against it," Milligan said.

Orchard Park Resident Howy Holmes urged the board to stop talking about not complying with the Open Meetings Law, because sooner or later, councilmen will run into each other on the street and start talking about a town issue. He said he won't consider it a meeting, and not much will happen to board members.

"Are they going to take your dessert away for a night or something? It's no big deal. Quit talking about it, just do it," Holmes said.