ANCRAM—An invitation sent out by the library to certain town officials asking them to engage in a “community conversation” that excluded the general public triggered concerns that the session would violate the state Open Meetings Law.
Now, after further consideration, the library has issued a new invitation, which does include the public…but, there are still complications.
During the March 21 Ancram Town Board meeting, Deputy Supervisor/Town Councilman Hugh Clark raised questions about an invitation from the Roeliff Jansen Community Library received by Town Supervisors, Town Board members and Town Clerks in Ancram, Copake and Hillsdale—the three area towns the library is chartered to serve.
Mr. Clark noted the library “community conversation,” as the invitation described it, “has the potential to violate the Open Meetings Law” because if three or more board members attended the gathering, a quorum would be present. “Any gathering of a quorum of a public body conducting a public meeting must be open to the public,” he said.
Councilman Clark also voiced concerns that the library had decided to limit the gathering to town officials and not open it to the general public because it did not want to “inhibit frank conversation.” He said “hiding behind a veil of secrecy casts a pall” over the gathering and the invitation came from someone who “does not understand open government.”
He said any comments made under those circumstances would not be “worth listening to if [the speaker] is not willing to speak in public.”
Supervisor Art Bassin suggested that Mr. Clark point out his concerns to the library.
Councilwoman Bonnie Hundt said that “getting people together to discuss mutual problems, concerns and vision is a great idea.”
“I have no problem with the concept,” said Mr. Clark. My problem is that “people who should know better haven’t thought it out.”
Ms. Hundt agreed the public should be invited.
When Supervisor Bassin asked board members who would attend the April 8 library gathering, Councilman David Boice, who is also the Ancram fire chief, said he would not go because the library was going to conduct multiple meetings like this at other locations. He said he would go to the one held at the firehouse, which would be open to the public.
State Department of State Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert J. Freeman told The Columbia Paper that if a majority of any of the boards involved, including the library board, is present the Open Meetings Law applies.
The invitation says in part that the library “is convening a series of community conversations with groups of residents of the Roe Jan community. Each one will be a chance for us to better understand people’s aspirations for the community, their concerns, their goals, and what they believe might make a difference in strengthening the community. These are not conversations about town politics or policies or about the library—though they will inform our planning for the future.”
The library “decided to limit this first community conversation to our town officials because of your unique perspective and because of concern that your participation in conversations open to the general public might inhibit frank conversation,” says the invitation signed by Library Director Tamara Gaskell.
In response to Mr. Clark’s concerns, Ms. Gaskell told him via email that an attorney on the library board had opined that there would be no violation.
“The conversations are not ‘meetings’ since they are neither ‘official[ly] convened’ nor ‘for the purpose of public business.’ Further, the conversations do not come within the scope of a ‘public body.’ The conversations are not gatherings of a ‘Public body’ since no quorum is required,” the attorney wrote.
Ms. Gaskell went on to write in response to Mr. Clark, “The purpose of the meeting is not to conduct public business but learn more about the communities the library serves. Learning what members of the town boards think, as individuals rather than as collective bodies … is important to us because of your unique insights into your communities. Whatever comes out of this conversation may impact library decision making, but it certainly is not intended to result in any town decisions.”
Contacted by phone, Library Board of Trustees President Pat Placona said this week that the library is aware of the Open Meetings Law and if only two people from each town board should attend, then the town board should decide who it should be. She said only one member of the library board would attend the meeting along with the library director, who would facilitate.
In a follow-up email, Ms. Placona wrote, “It’s up to each Town Board to decide who attends.”
But the library invitation says, “We hope that by bringing all of you together we can begin to see what our common aspirations and concerns are as a region. It is very important that we talk to all of you.”
Both Copake Supervisor Jeff Nayer and Hillsdale Supervisor Peter Cipkowski said that upon receiving the invitation they questioned Ms. Gaskell about whether having all board members attend would be in violation of the Open Meetings Law. They both said Ms. Gaskell assured them the library “community conversations” do not fall under the Open Meetings Law.
Mr. Nayer said he knew of at least two of his town board members who were interested in attending and wondered “if the library doesn’t have anything to hide why do they make it look like they are hiding something” by not including the public. Mr. Nayer said he subsequently checked with his town attorney about the legality of the meeting and ultimately the answer was: “It’s sketchy and there are other ways they could do it.”
Mr. Cipkowski said he mentioned the library meeting at his last town board meeting noting, “all town board members were invited.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Ms. Gaskell said the conversations were never intended to exclude people and in fact, five more meetings at locations other than the library are planned.
The conversations are part of a step-by-step program called “Turning Outward,” a resource for libraries that offers tools “designed to help libraries strengthen their role as community leaders and bring about positive change in their communities,” according to the American Library Association website www.ala.org.
Ms. Gaskell said the library’s Turning Outward team would meet to discuss the gathering in question that afternoon. She said the public would be invited to the April 8 “conversation.”
Following the meeting she said by email: “We will be sending out a revised invitation to the town officials later this week reiterating that this conversation is not for the purpose of conducting public business, but that we recognize that the open meeting law may limit the ability of all board members to attend. We hope that those who cannot attend will attend one of our five later meetings. The April 8 meeting will also be open to anyone else who wishes to attend.”
The Committee on Open Government Committee Assistant Director Kristin O’Neill said that if a quorum of any board attends then it becomes an official town meeting. That means each individual board must comply with the Open Meetings Law and the provide official public notice of the meeting, keep minutes and follow any other applicable procedures. She noted that there are rules about where town meetings can be held and that they usually take place within town borders, although there are some exceptions for joint meetings.
Ms. O’Neill said in all likelihood, the town boards probably do not want to create the perception that this is a town meeting and it would be made less complicated if they sent less than a quorum.
To contact Diane Valden email