By Paul W. Wolf
This week marked Sunshine Week, where the importance of a free press and open government is celebrated across the United States. Sunshine Week is a good time to reflect on how New York State’s Open Meetings law can be improved.
Incredible as it may seem, the Open Meetings Law does not mandate that governmental bodies must hear from the public at their meetings. For example, 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 Open Meetings Law does not mandate that agenda documents be posted online before a meeting occurs. The public should be able to see the same documents their government leaders are discussing and voting on. With today’s technology, scanning board member documents and posting the information online in advance of a meeting should be mandatory.
New York does not require meeting minutes to be posted online. While many public bodies voluntarily post meeting minutes, some keep the public in the dark by not doing so. Meeting minutes should be required to be posted online within 14 days of a meeting occurring.
Under the Open Meetings Law, the elected members of a local government who belong to the same political party can meet in private to discuss public business. The political party in control can discuss everything in private meetings and take votes in public that are a mere formality of what has already been agreed to in private. This is a large loophole in the law that needs to be addressed.
Recently the New York State Legislature mandated that industrial development agencies must video record their meetings and post the video online for the public to see. Similar legislation should be passed requiring local governments to record and post videos of their meetings online.
The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government has documented in its reports how weak the Open Meetings Law is and how frequently violations occur. In New York, no entity including the Attorney General’s Office 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.
The time has come to bring more sunshine to New York by reforming the Open Meetings Law.
Paul W. Wolf is an attorney and president of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government.