G’town fire official blocks press access

GERMANTOWN—Germantown Hose Company No. 1—the town’s only fire company—held its regular monthly meeting Tuesday. This newspaper was not permitted to attend.

Prior to the meeting, when a reporter called company President Dale Hinkein to confirm the start time, Mr. Hinkein said the meeting would begin at 7 p.m., but the press would not be allowed to attend.

Reminded that the fire company received public funds and thus was subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law, Mr. Hinkein said the company itself did not receive the funds, that financial support and equipment came through the Board of Fire Commissioners. The fire company, he said was “a club” and therefore did not have to abide by the Open Meetings Law.

Mr. Hinkein added that the firefighters had been unhappy with a January 8 report in The Columbia Paper that included the company’s fund balance ($40,000) and post-meeting supper (spaghetti).

Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, a division of the state Department of State, disagreed with Mr. Hinkein’s assessment in a later telephone conversation.

The Open Meetings Law defines a “public body” as “any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation….”

In a 2004 written advisory opinion, Mr. Freeman said that “a volunteer fire company at its meetings conducts public business and performs a governmental function… carried out for a public corporation, which is defined to include a municipality, such as a town….”

Mr. Freeman wrote further that volunteer fire companies are not-for-profit corporations that perform their duties by means of contractual relationships with municipalities. In a case brought under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, found that a volunteer fire company is an “agency” that falls within the provision of the FOIL (Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 1980).

The court “clearly indicated that a volunteer fire company performs a governmental function,” wrote Mr. Freeman, and thus its meetings must be open to the public and “its records subject to the rights of access granted by the FOIL.”

 

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