The Johnsburg Town Board meets at Scout Hall in Sodom Tuesday, April 17.
In last week’s editorial, the News Enterprise wrote about the state’s newest Open Meetings Law amendment and how many of the region’s towns, schools and other public bodies have fallen short with compliance.
We didn’t single out anyone, except for a few A-plus boards that go above and beyond — city of Glens Falls, village of Saranac Lake and Johnsburg Central School.
We could have easily added the Adirondack Park Agency to that list; they even webcast their meetings (a statewide requirement that came from the short-lived Spitzer Administration and cost the agency thousands of dollars).
This week — now that the state has given all schools, towns, villages, cities, counties and state agencies a year to comply with the “meeting material” amendment — let’s look at all the public boards in the News Enterprise readership and see how they’re doing.
Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved an amendment to the Open Meetings Law (section 103e) requiring public bodies to provide meeting material to the public prior to their meetings, starting Feb. 2, 2012.
The change to the law centers around two types of records:
1) those that are required to be made available pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL);
2) and proposed resolutions, law, rules, regulations, policies or amendments.
When these records are scheduled to be discussed at meetings, they must be “made available, upon request therefore, to the extent practicable as determined by the agency or the department, prior to or at the meeting during which the records will be discussed.”
Public bodies can charge a reasonable fee for copies of the meeting material. However, by posting them online, they will save money.
Speaking of online, there is an important website requirement in this amendment:
“If the agency in which a public body functions maintains a regularly and routinely updated website and utilizes a high speed Internet connection, such records shall be posted on the website to the extent practicable as determined by the agency or the department, prior to the meeting.”
Grading the boards
The purpose of this report is to grade the website portion of the “meeting material” amendment. Believe it or not, I’ve been tracking all the boards in the News Enterprise region since Feb. 2, 2012 to see who is taking this seriously.
My intention was to give periodic updates in the newspaper to show the public how their elected representatives are doing with regard to the Open Meetings Law. That’s part of our job, keeping them honest, putting them on notice, being the watchdog for taxpayers.
I wanted to rank the boards and give credit to those who have made progress. And I wanted to be as fair as possible — knowing that I will be critical of the schools and towns that are not yet complying — so I decided to give them grades based on certain criteria.
But this wasn’t done in a vacuum; I interviewed most of these school superintendents and town supervisors in the spring of 2012 to see how they were coping with the new requirement. I found that some were investing in software, even though the law states that they don’t have to spend any money (to get away from the stigma of being an unfunded mandate). I found others hiding behind the same funding language and the words “to the extent practicable.”
I even interviewed Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert Freeman at the New York Press Association conference in the spring of 2012. I asked him about boards using the statute’s language to make excuses why they can’t post meeting material on their websites.
Freeman asked me, “Can you place it on your website?”
“Yes,” I said.
Therefore, it’s practicable for all boards to do so, he asserted.
When you go to a public meeting, each board member is given a packet of reference material so they are prepared to discuss items on the agenda and make decisions. The information can include correspondence, proposed resolutions, laws, rules, regulations, policies and amendments. Minus any executive session material, it certainly includes material required to be made available pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
This is the information — the meeting packet — that should be available on the public body’s website “prior to the meeting.”
Obviously, if something was added to the agenda an hour or so before the meeting, it would not have to be placed on the agenda (unless a board wants to release an addendum) and that information would not have to be placed online because of time constraints. That’s understandable. And that’s where the language “to the extent practicable” makes sense.
So it’s this meeting packet that is the foundation of our grading system, since it’s the heart of the amendment. However, at the News Enterprise, we’re holding these boards to a higher standard.
We feel the public would most benefit from having public bodies also post agendas and minutes (as many already do since they are usually part of the meeting packet).
Furthermore, this material would be most helpful if it was permanently archived, not just posted temporarily until the next meeting.
Therefore, we’re grading boards by having the following posted on their websites: agenda, meeting packets and minutes.
We’ve also adjusted grades for permanency of that material on their websites, giving higher grades to boards that have archived them instead of temporarily posting them for a week or two.
Grade: A — Town of Indian Lake — agenda YES, meeting packets YES, minutes YES (archived and updated)
Grade A minus — Town of Minerva — agenda YES (temporarily), meeting packets YES (temporarily), minutes YES; nothing is archived
Grade: C — Town of Johnsburg — agenda YES (temporary), meeting packets NO, minutes YES (archived and updated)
Grade: C — Town of Long Lake — agenda YES (archived), meeting packets YES (resolutions only), minutes NO; meeting notices and agendas not updated (as of Jan. 16)
Grade: D — Town of Newcomb — agenda NO, meeting packets NO, minutes YES (not updated)
Grade: A — Johnsburg Central — agenda YES, meeting packets YES, minutes YES; packets temporary, agendas and minutes archived
Grade: A — Long Lake Central — agenda - YES, meeting packets YES, minutes YES (archived and updated); agenda and meeting packet temporary
Grade: A — Minerva Central — agenda YES, meeting packets YES, minutes YES (all temporary)
Grade: A — Newcomb Central — agenda - YES, meeting packets YES, minutes YES; all are archived (missing some meetings but most are there)
Grade: C — Indian Lake Central — agenda - YES, meeting packets NO, minutes YES; agenda and minutes temporary and not up to date
Grade: A — Essex County — agenda YES, minutes YES, resolutions YES; all are archived
Grade: A — Hamilton County — agenda YES, minutes YES, resolutions YES; all are archived
Grade: C — Warren County — agenda NO, minutes YES (archived), resolutions NO
Please note that not all A-grade town and school boards started there a year ago. In fact, I don’t think any had a grade of A on Feb. 2. 2012.
Yet all the school districts and some town boards, like Indian Lake and Minerva, have made a lot of progress. They worked at it. Some have even spent money; the town of Indian Lake spent about $4,000 on a new printer/copier/scanner to meet the requirement.
But it takes leadership to step up and do what’s right by the taxpayers.
Please — and this is our plea to supervisors, superintendents and board members — work hard to reach a “meeting packet” grade A on your website by the end of 2013. Your residents will thank you. And we’ll be watching.