It’s been almost a year since Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved an amendment to the Open Meetings Law (section 103e) requiring public bodies — school, town, village, city, county and state boards — to provide meeting material to the public prior to their meetings.
While some boards have made progress toward meeting this requirement, which was enacted last February, we sadly report that many public bodies are not following the law.
Moreover, many are not fulfilling the spirit of the law because they are hiding behind language in the amendment preventing it from becoming an unfunded mandate.
We urge all public boards to rectify this shortcoming immediately instead of hoping the public will ignore their responsibilities in regard to the New York State Open Meetings Law. The public has a right to know what board members are talking about in their meetings.
Starting Feb. 2, 2012, New York state began requiring boards to give the public access to their records scheduled for discussion at open meetings. The reason?
“Members of the public have on many occasions complained that they cannot fully understand discussions among members of public bodies, even though the discussions occur in public,” states the New York Department of State Committee on Open Government.
This change to the Open Meetings Law was made so “those interested in the work of public bodies should have the ability, within reasonable limitations, to see the records scheduled to be discussed during open meetings prior to the meetings.”
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 thereto.
When these records are scheduled to be discussed, they must be “made available, upon request therefor, 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.
Unfortunately, there are many boards who are not following the amendment’s website requirement:
“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.”
This is where many boards are failing. And they’re hiding behind the words “to the extent practicable.”
When asked about this language during the New York Press Association conference in the spring of 2012, Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert Freeman answered a Denton Publications editor with a question: “Can you place it on your website?” The answer was “yes.” Therefore, it is practicable for all boards to do so, he asserted.
Public boards are also hiding behind the language that makes this an unfunded mandate:
“An agency may, but shall not be required to, expend additional moneys to implement the provisions of this subdivision.”
Therefore, some say they will not post meeting material online because it will require them to redesign their websites, and that costs money.
Wrong. If the public body updates its own website, it doesn’t cost extra money, just extra time. Some towns, however, have outside firms manage their websites, and updates do cost money. But that should be considered regular maintenance. You don’t have to redesign your website to post meeting material.
Hallmarks of website posting for their meetings include the City of Glens Falls, Village of Saranac Lake and Johnsburg Central School.
As for the other public entities, we’re keeping an eye on you. When we follow up on this topic, we hope all boards will be complying with the law.
For more information about the Open Meetings law, visit www.dos.ny.gov/coog.