EDITORIAL: What are they hiding?

NAG, NAG, NAG. Could any newspaper resist the chance to rail at government secrecy? Something in our DNA itches to expose government when officials hide stuff from the public. It makes for great copy.

Fortunately there’s no shortage of elected and appointed officials who believe sneaky government produces the best results. And anyone who attends local government meetings will understand why officials adopt a none-of-your-damn-business style of governing. Time and again at local board meetings an unelected citizen will confuse the privilege of being recognized for a public comment with an invitation to address Congress and the nation… at length. Some citizen windbags must come from homes where nobody listens to them anymore, so they go to meetings where they’re guaranteed a captive audience. They treat board meetings like a conversation in the parking lot.

Boards need an occasional reminder that setting limits on the time allowed for public comments at official meetings is consistent with good government and healthy sleep habits.
But it does not follow that the power to limit public comment also permits government to exclude the people from observing the meetings of elected and appointed officials. Sometimes government officials forget that the potential for disruption is not an excuse for secrecy. That’s exactly what has happened in the Town of Chatham.

The town has a Zoning Implementation Committee (ZIC), now in its fifth year of existence, which has wrestled with changes and updates to the town zoning law. It’s a daunting task, not least because changes in the law have to reflect the goals established by the town Comprehensive Plan. Land use regulation is one of the greatest powers a municipality has, and even in a rural town, there are plenty of interests to consider.

The minutes of the monthly ZIC meetings have now been published on the town website, http://chathamnewyork.us (click on “ZIC Committee Minutes”), which satisfies one requirement of the state Open Meetings Law. But only one.

The meetings of this committee have been closed to the public. Why? The town attorney said it was because the committee wanted it that way to help the flow of conversation. Of course! If you’re a public official deciding what restrictions to place on how your neighbors use their property, you certainly don’t want those neighbors to hear what you say. Golly, you might even have to think before you speak, and that would be so inefficient.

The town attorney said at the Town Board meeting last week that the ZIC is not subject to the state Open Meetings Law because its membership does not include a quorum of Town Board members.

There’s something called the Internet and on the website of the New York State Department of State Committee on Open Government, www.dos.ny.gov/coog/index.html, is the mercifully short and clear state Open Meetings Law, which says very near the top: “‘Meeting’ means the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business…” and shortly after that says, “‘Public body’ means 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.”

So either Chatham officials don’t consider the drafting of zoning laws “public business” or they’re ignorant of the law that governs their own actions as public officials. Hard to say which is worse.

You might ask why any of this matters. After all, the ZIC has pondered revising new zoning for so long its proposals may be outdated before they come to a vote. But the town recently stated that its zoning revision process was near completion. This assertion was offered as a justification for a moratorium on development along the town’s dirt roads.

So what happens if someone questions the legitimacy of zoning proposals recommended because the ZIC violated the Open Meetings Law? Would that be reason enough for a developer to qualify for an exemption to the moratorium or for a judge to invalidate the whole development freeze? Does the town budget have funds to pay for defending the ZIC’s secret meetings in court?

The benefits of open government don’t depend on “what-if” speculation. Nor is this strictly a matter of breaking the law. Why taint government activities by hiding them, when privacy isn’t the central concern?

Secrecy is toxic to democracy. That’s why we have laws that limit the ability of government to conceal its actions. But the laws will not work unless we demand that the government we elect abides by them.

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