Saturday April 7, 2012

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- A little-reported but substantive amendment to New York Open Meeting Law has gone largely unheeded by a number of municipalities since it went into effect in February.

A new provision in New York law, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last December, requires public records that are scheduled to be the subject of discussion during an open meeting to be available upon request "to the extent practicable" prior to or at the meeting.

The newly enacted section does not affect the type of information that is public, and refers to both the agenda and material commonly bundled together and given to board members as "board packets" in advance of each meeting.

If the agency in question maintains a "regularly and routinely updated website," and has 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," according to state law.

The state Committee on Open Government, in a release, called it "the most significant change in (Open Meetings Law) in the past 30 years."

Yet currently, only some nearby towns, village, or school in New York regularly offer board packets online in advance of meetings. Agendas and board packets are sometimes posted, depending on the municipality, but often only after the meeting, or, in the case of minutes, after the board's approval the following month.

Follow the intent

New Cambridge village board member Valerie Reagan made a request for that board to follow the intent of the open meeting law after being sworn in during her first meeting as trustee Wednesday. A regular attendee of village board meetings, recognized Wednesday for her 15 years of service on the village's zoning board, Reagan had previously broached the topic of the new requirements at the board's February and March meetings, then as a member of the public.

"It's a control thing," Reagan said Wednesday, adding members of the public either might not know their rights, or be too afraid to ask for public records discussed during meetings.

"You've seen the police report? OK, let's move on," Reagan said, illustrating the oblique nature of some discussions at public meetings, which the new legislation attempts to correct. She said transparency in government was important.

Mayor Stephen Robertson said he understood Reagan's point, but said in practical terms, anyone who wanted a public document could ask him before or after the meeting, and a copy would be made available. Robertson said Reagan was one of only a handful of people to request a record from him during the four years he had served on the board.

"It doesn't make sense to go through these hoops for no one to be here," Robertson said. He said he didn't want village office staff spending hours scanning documents to upload to the website.

Board member Alan Dupuis II questioned the extra workload, given that board members already received electronic copies of all business in advance from the clerk's office. (The publicly available packets would need to have "executive session" private material, such as litigation or personnel matters, redacted before being posted.)

Reagan said she would like to see the village follow the intent of the law. "I would request one copy be available" at the beginning of the meeting, she said, to be placed alongside copies of the agenda. She additionally asked for a copy of the board packet to be available online.

Village Clerk Bethany Witham said she would try to comply with that request. The village of Cambridge would be the first local municipality to follow the new state statute, with the exceptions of Rensselaer County and Berlin Central School, which recently made board packets available before meetings of the county Legislature and school board, respectively. The availability of public information online varies widely between other public boards in the area.

Giving a legal and legislative opinion Wednesday, as the locally elected state assemblyman, village Attorney Tony Jordan acknowledged local municipalities had far less office resources than elsewhere in the state, but said lack of clerical staff was an insubstantial justification for not following the law.

Jordan explained the amendment nearly word-for-word, emphasizing "to the extent practicable," which the new subsection includes twice. In announcing the new section of law, the Committee on Open Government said that phrasing was intended to ensure the change was implemented "reasonably and without undue burden," acknowledging that many local governments lack the information technology resources or knowledge or expertise.

The new open meeting requirements would not force a municipality to create a website if one did not already exist, for example. Most local municipalities in New York do currently maintain websites, however.

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