Public often shut out of municipal meetings

Screenshot from Ogdensburg special meeting

The majority of elected officials statewide are infrequently hearing from constituents during the COVID-19 pandemic and could improve government transparency, according to a state organization’s report released Tuesday.

Nonpartisan charitable organization New York Coalition For Open Government reviewed the transparency of 21 governmental bodies — 10 counties, 11 cities and one town — across the state in the month of April to see if local governments are representing New York’s largest localities.

The report showed 14 of 21, or 67 percent, of the reviewed government bodies eliminated hearing from the public during their April meetings, which were held digitally because of the coronavirus. Seven out of the 21 encouraged residents to make comments via telephone, voicemails, video calls or recordings or emails.

The Albany, Binghamton, Niagara Falls, Rochester and Syracuse city councils, the Monroe County Legislature and the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors made efforts to solicit live public comments by video or telephone or reading or summarizing resident comments during April meetings.

The coalition graded 21 localities to see if they complied with state Open Meetings Law requirements to live-stream meetings, post all meeting documents online beforehand and publish meeting audio or video afterward.

The organization also analyzed boards’ efforts for residents to see and hear public comments during online meetings. The Open Meetings Law does not mandate public comment periods.

The municipalities were chosen based on the state’s most populated cities and counties. The governmental bodies include Erie and Niagara county legislatures, the Buffalo Common Council and Niagara Falls City Council in Western New York; the Jefferson County Legislature and Watertown City Council in the North Country; and the Albany City Council and the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors in the Capital Region. Albany County — the region’s largest county — legislators did not meet in April.

The state is preparing to gradually reopen its economy as COVID-19 infections are on the decline, but officials must be prepared to conduct meetings remotely until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves a virus vaccine.

“In the best of times, open government is a struggle — even before the COVID-19 crisis,” Mr. Wolf said. “My hope is one of the positive things out of this is people are videotaping and live-streaming their meetings; a lot of places weren’t doing it before. I hope this practice continues. Our preference is people have the opportunity to be heard live whether through video or telephone.”

Some officials may not know how to use technology, Mr. Wolf said.

“I had never used Zoom before, but I don’t think it’s that complicated,” he added of the popular video conference calling app. “Hopefully with practice, they’ll get better at it.”

Although Lewis County is one of the smallest counties in the state, officials haven’t found a way to allow public engagement during their Zoom meetings for the past two months, although they have consistently ensured press access.

“Even with just the 10 legislators on the call, with all of the background noises and phones going off and people talking at the same time, I don’t know how we could open the meetings to the public at this point,” County Manager Ryan Piche had said before the Board of Legislators held its first Zoom meeting on April 7.

As a mitigating factor, Mr. Piche said the board has been consciously “paring down” the legislative issues being brought up for a vote.

“Big policy work really has to be done in person,” Mr. Piche said, “We’ve pulled our slate of business way back, which is appropriate because we aren’t able to meet in a truly open forum and our county operations have been pulled back. It’s a unique time when the county efforts have been turned away from its strategic goals and all the things we wanted to accomplish this year and instead have been focused on pandemic response.”

Towns and villages around the county have been using a number of methods: Zoom, group telephone calls and in-person meetings using social distancing practices. In some cases, especially in March, monthly meetings were canceled.

“It’s been a collection of firsts and different situations,” said town of Diana Clerk Janet Taylor.

Limited access to reliable internet service has also been a challenge for municipalities that still do not have access to high-speed internet, and a lack of tech savvy to live stream or re-post video or audio recordings later has hindered public access.

The City of Ogdensburg has been struggling to keep its meetings available to everybody who wants to attend.

The city’s free version of Gotomeeting.com with a 150-person capacity worked fine for a regular meeting. But, when the Council called a special meeting to consider a resolution to lay off several city employees, including police officers and firefighters, the 150-person limit was reached before the City Clerk logged onto the app.

The city moved to a paid version of the platform for the rescheduled meeting that allowed for 1,000 participants.

There were some glitches in that meeting that appeared to be related to participant equipment, but a subsequent regular meeting had more than 1,100 people registered to attend and had to be postponed over the objection of two city councilors.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency March 7 because of the COVID-19 outbreak — six days after New York’s first positive case. The executive order suspended the state’s Open Meetings Law requiring all government meetings be open to the public with given notice. The law also requires meeting documents be posted on a local government’s website before a meeting, which must be streamed in real-time and posted online soon afterward.

Governor’s office spokesman Jason Conwall said the order’s intent is to require public boards to ensure members of the public can view or listen to public meetings live.

“They have an obligation to provide remote, contemporaneous access,” state Committee on Open Government Assistant Director Kristin O’Neill said. “The public has to be able to listen or view while the meeting is occurring.”

“We did it based on population, so probably the bigger populous areas have greater technological capability,” Wolf said. “I saw where smaller communities do have technology issues. I don’t have any particular recommendations other than, hopefully, they can try the best they can to figure it out.”

The coalition may conduct another report focusing on government transparency in more rural, less-populated towns and counties.

“All we can do is shine a light on some of these things, maybe embarrass folks,” Wolf said. “Sometimes, that’s what you have to do to make things happen.”

The coalition sent the report to all state legislators and reviewed elected officials encouraging them to take action and make improvements.

St. Lawrence County Editor Tom Graser and staff writer Julie Abbass contributed to this report.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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