EDITORIAL: It’s not just about the law

MOST OF THEM probably won’t wear designer logo backpacks or carry Zhu Zhu Pets lunchboxes, but some newly elected town officials here will be heading off to school this week to learn the ABCs of governance.

The smart ones are taking the opportunity to attend the New Town Officials School this week at the Desmond Hotel just north of Albany presented by the Association of Towns of New York State. A lot of the teacher-speakers are state officials, but it’s not a state-run event. The association is an independent organization. This training has to rank as one of the most important functions the organization offers.

These newbie supervisors, Town Board members and town clerks will hear about the nitty-gritty of budgeting and legislation, about purchasing and personnel management, bids and the retirement system. All of it will be important. But from the biased perspective of a business that depends on the public’s right to know what government is doing, one session stands out. Let’s hope they were wide awake and not playing hooky at Crossgates mall this morning for the presentation by Robert J. Freeman, executive director for the New York State Department of State Committee on Open Government.

The Committee on Open Government is the agency that handles questions about–and renders opinions on–the state Freedom of Information Law, usually called FOIL, as well as the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. Since it was created in 1974, the committee has become the public’s first line of defense against secret government, which is amazing considering it is staffed by a handful of people who have little power other than the authority to render opinions that government agencies have violated the law.

The committee doesn’t issue arrest warrants or sue people or even adopt regulations. It just advises people about laws made by legislature and governor. But officials ignore it at their peril, because now, municipalities and agencies that improperly block access to public records risk having to pay the legal fees of the person seeking the records. Politicians who squander taxpayer money hiding information that should be public seldom improve their standing with voters.

The newly elected officials who attend the association’s school will hear about these laws from Mr. Freeman, the long-time head of the committee and an internationally recognized expert on open government. Maybe they’ll retain some of what they learn and apply to their conduct of town business in places like, say, Germantown.

Why single out Germantown?  An issue came up there this month that shows both why we need an Open Meetings Law and how limited the law’s reach can be. In this case, two new members of the board were elected last November without opposition. They didn’t officially take office until the beginning of this year. But before they were sworn in, they began meeting privately with a sitting member of the board, planning actions that the three of them, as a majority on the five-member board, would take as soon as they were in office.

Reasonable people would agree that officials waiting to take office should plan for the transition, and that goal does not need to run afoul of the Open Meetings Law. The law says that a quorum of a board may not meet privately except for a limited number of special cases (litigation, for example) and must give notice that a meeting is being held and the general reason why such an “executive session” has been called. Three members of the Germantown board couldn’t meet, at least not without revealing why.

But the same restriction does not apply to board members-elect. Because the new Germantown board members hadn’t taken their oath of office, they were just like any other private citizen, free to meet privately with a sitting board member and hatch any kind of plans they wanted. That’s what a lawyer for the Committee on Open Government told me this week.

Germantown Supervisor Roy Brown, who was on the losing end of the votes taken by the new board majority, conceded that the private meetings by the three board members did not violate the law, but they still “stink.” He’s right.

Government sometimes must convene in secrecy, but decisions taken outside the scrutiny of the public corrode democracy. No laws were broken in Germantown, but trust was abused. Let’s hope new lawmakers learn this week that’s the worst possible way to inaugurate a term as a democratically elected official. 


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