2 villages in NNY earn Fs in report

Watertown Daily Times

POTSDAM — In the New York Coalition for Open Government’s latest report, two north country villages earned failing grades for maintaining 2020 meeting records on their municipal websites and February meeting documentation.

The coalition releases reports a few times a year, and Wednesday’s report details a study of 20 village governments across nine regions. In the north country, Potsdam and Lowville both scored in the “F” range based on four criteria, though not all criteria are regulated by state Open Meetings Law.

Through the state Department of State, an 11-member Committee on Open Government oversees three sunshine laws — Open Meetings, Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Protection — all outlined by Public Officers Law. The laws generally detail the public’s right to know how government works, how and when decisions are made and who has made them.

Separate from the state Committee on Open Government, the coalition is an all-volunteer nonprofit comprised of attorneys, educators, journalists and activists concerned about open government and freedom of information.

Coalition President Paul W. Wolf said during a news conference Thursday morning that governments either violating Open Meetings Law or not offering online records access are “keeping the public in the dark.”

“The real problem here,” Mr. Wolf said over Zoom, “is the lack of information being provided to the public. If you’re not posting meeting minutes, I as a concerned citizen, if I missed the meeting, I don’t know what happened. If you’re not posting your meeting agenda, and I’m a concerned citizen, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

The village website and meeting documentation study was based on four criteria: meeting minutes posted online in 2020; meeting agendas posted online in February 2021; meeting documents posted online prior to February meetings; and public comment periods.

The criteria were weighted and scored, with meeting minutes and public comment categories each worth 15 points. Meeting agendas and meeting documents for February were each worth 35 points. The total 100 points were parsed into letter grades — 100 points for an A, 85 points for a B, 70 points for a C, 65 points for a D and less than 65 points for an F.

In addition to Potsdam and Lowville, the study was represented by the villages of Fredonia, Kenmore, Lewiston and Wellsville in Western New York; Brockport and Geneseo in the Finger Lakes; Johnson City and Horseheads in the Southern Tier; Chittenango and North Syracuse in Central New York; Cobleskill and Ilion in the Mohawk Valley; Colonie and Scotia in the Capital District; New Paltz and Port Chester in the Hudson Valley; and Garden City and Lindenhurst on Long Island.

Of the 20 villages, Johnson City and New Paltz received A grades. Brockport, Fredonia and Port Chester received B grades. The remaining 15 scores were either Ds or Fs.

With a population of roughly 9,000, the village of Potsdam typically hosts board of trustees meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month. Potsdam’s failing grade stems from missing online minutes from December that have since been posted.

The coalition’s report also notes the village did not post its agenda or meeting documents online prior to last month’s meetings. In 19th place, Potsdam earned a total of 15 points for allowing public comments during its regular meetings.

Potsdam Mayor Reinhold J. Tischler did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Lowville, population 3,200, earned 30 points by the coalition’s measure for posting all meeting minutes to the village website in 2020, and for allowing public comment. The village did not receive points for its February pre-meeting documentation, as the coalition noted an agenda and meeting materials were not posted online.

Both Potsdam and Lowville use Digital Towpath Cooperative, an Oneida County-based website platform for local governments.

Lowville Mayor Joseph G. Beagle said the village regularly posts its monthly meeting minutes but will work to improve its web presence prior to meetings.

“I will admit, we don’t post our agendas,” Mr. Beagle said, adding that the village can do better.

Public meeting agendas, he said, are printed and available at the Bostwick Street municipal building. Village meetings, at 4 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month, continue to be open in a hybrid format, with Zoom used as the virtual public participation setup.

“We’re always open,” Mr. Beagle said. “Anybody who has a question can call us about it.”

Open Meetings Law requires public bodies — “to the extent practicable” — make relevant documents available prior to meetings and make minutes “available” to the public within two weeks of a meeting. Legislative efforts to adjust that language in the state Assembly and Senate are underway.

Rep. Amy R. Paulin, D-Eastchester, and state Sen. Anna M. Kaplan, D-Great Neck, have introduced bills that would change the Open Meetings Law to require online posting of documents before meetings and online posting of minutes within two weeks, further specifying what making such records “available” means.

The state has twice before amended Open Meetings Law to establish sanctions for violations.

“The reality is,” this week’s coalition report reads, “that other than citizen lawsuits, which are expensive and difficult to undertake, there is no entity that ensures compliance with the New York State Open Meetings Law.”

Though the law does not mandate public comment periods be part of open meetings nor does it currently require meeting minutes to be posted specifically online, several other requirements are outlined in the law.

Accessible broadcast and digital access, when possible, and maintenance of meeting records are expected from public bodies, committees, school boards and public corporations — “any entity, for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business.”

A quorum is established, according to the Committee on Open Government, when a body’s majority is present, regardless of any vacancies or absences. For a five-member village board, for example, when three members meet to conduct or discuss public business, a quorum is established. For a seven-member city council, a quorum is always four.

Through the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.1 has spelled out emergency exceptions and modifications to state laws and regulations, including Open Meetings Law. The pandemic order permits telephone meetings and exclusively virtual meetings by video conference, but the foundational elements of the law remain unchanged.

Sunday will mark a full year of Executive Order 202, issued as an initial disaster emergency declaration in response to the pandemic. Several extensions and dozens of legal expansions later, Executive Order 202, now 202.94, temporarily suspends or modifies laws and regulations that would “prevent, hinder or delay” coping with the disaster emergency or would be “necessary to assist or aid in coping with such disaster.”

The order is currently extended through March 16, and the modification of Open Meetings Law allows meetings to exclusively take place virtually “provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”

This week’s report follows the February release of a similar study that reviewed executive session conduct of 20 school districts last year. Twelve districts, including Watertown and Ogdensburg, received failing grades. The Buffalo-based coalition is now evaluating town planning boards across the state.

“This is basic stuff,” Mr. Wolf said. “Block clubs have meeting minutes and meeting agendas. So certainly government officials should be able to accomplish the same.”

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