By Paul W. Wolf
Recent events locally have highlighted the lack of sunshine by public bodies and the need to strengthen New York’s Open Meetings Law.
Incredible as it may seem, the Open Meetings Law does not mandate that public bodies must hear from the public at their meetings. The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit organization, recently asked to have a representative speak at an Erie County Legislature meeting and the request was denied. The Erie County Legislature and the Buffalo Common Council do not allow the public to speak at their regular meetings and they are not legally obligated to do so.
The University at Buffalo is a public institution devoted to the discussion and debate of ideas, yet their College Council does not allow members of the public to speak at their meetings.
Recently the Community Action Organization had armed guards prevent members of the public from even attending a board meeting. The CAO receives millions of dollars in public funds and yet, according to legal experts, it is questionable whether the Open Meetings Law applies.
The Open Meetings Law does not mandate that meeting documents be posted online before a meeting occurs. Many local governments post an agenda of topics and nothing else. The public should be able to see the same documents their government leaders are discussing and voting on. With today’s technology, scanning a board member’s packet of documents and posting the information online in advance of a meeting should be mandatory.
The Open Meetings Law does not require meeting minutes to be posted online. While many public bodies voluntarily post the minutes, some keep the public in the dark by not doing so.
The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government has documented in their reports how weak the Open Meetings Law is and how frequently violations occur. In New York, no entity including the attorney general has the power to enforce the Open Meetings Law. If government officials violate the law, citizens must hire an attorney to file a lawsuit, which costs thousands of dollars. In Massachusetts and other states, citizens can file an Open Meetings Law complaint with the state attorney general’s office, which has the power to investigate and fine government officials. Violations of the Open Meetings Law should have real repercussions through enforcement powers that can hold government officials accountable.
New York state legislators have the power to bring more sunshine to public bodies by amending the Open Meetings Law. Our Western New York legislators should step forward to introduce this needed legislation.
Paul W. Wolf is an attorney and the president of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government.