Posted by: Dawn Powell | May 3, 2009

ILLEGAL MEETINGS

ADVISORY OPINION FROM THE COMMITTEE ON OPEN GOVERNMENT

Illegal Meetings, Open Government

 When I was interviewed for the ad hoc Planning Board position, Mr. Tendy asked me how I could work with the Planning Board when I have accused them of having illegal meetings.

I said that the illegal meetings bothered me, and that they should be a concern for everyone on the Town Board.   I have heard no objections to illegal meetings from any Board members.

The Planning Board gathers in the backroom without notice to discuss applications before their noticed meetings.

Three members of the Planning Board, as well as their attorney, met with others to discuss and rewrite the expertly written draft zoning code, without formal notice or formal cancellation of meetings, without recording formal decisions, and without minutes.  That was Mr. Tendy’s Wordsmith committee.

I received a four page response, dated April 16, 2009, to my inquiry about these meetings from the State of New York, Department of State, Committee on Open Government.

Excerpted from that response:

“ In the context of your inquiry, clearly the Planning Board is a public body.  Based on the rationale outlined above, in our opinion, a committee whose membership includes a majority of the Planning Board would also constitute a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law, and in any event, a gathering of a quorum of the Planning Board membership to discuss public business would constitute a meeting of the Planning Board regardless of others present.

Second, we note that the definition of “meeting” (Open Meetings Law, Section 102[1]) has been broadly interpreted by the courts.  In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, found that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a “meeting” that must be conducted open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take action and regardless of the manner in which a gathering may be characterized [see Orange County Publications v. Council of the City of Newburgh, 60 AD2d 409, aff’d 45 NY 2d 947 (1978)].”

This seems quite clear to me.  Both the Planning Board backroom meetings, and the Wordsmith meetings are covered by the Open Meetings Law.

Regarding the rationale for the public’s right to be included in the public process, the opinion also said:

In discussing the issue, the Appellate Division, whose determination was unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals, stated that:

’We believe that the Legislature intended to include more than the mere formal act of voting or the formal execution of an official document.  Every step of the decision-making process, including the decision itself, is a necessary preliminary to formal action.  Formal acts have always been matters of public record and the public has always been made aware of how its officials have voted on an issue.  There would be no need for this law if this was all the Legislature intended.  Obviously, every thought, as well as every affirmative act of a public official as it relates to and is within the scope of one’s official duties is a matter of public concern.  It is the entire decision-making process that the Legislature intended to affect by the enactment of this statute’ (60 AD 2d 409,415).”

The public process includes notice and minutes.  The Planning Board’s pre-meetings have not been noticed, nor have minutes been recorded.  The Wordsmith meetings were not properly noticed, and minutes were not taken.

“Third, as mentioned earlier, the Open Meetings Law requires that notice be given to the news media and posted prior to every meeting. “ (emphasis added)

“Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other mater formally voted upon and the vote thereon.”

I do not understand why Mr. Tendy expressed dismay at my continued comments on illegal meetings, yet expressed no distress at all about these meetings.  I do not understand why none of the Board members have made any comments about these illegal meetings.  I do not understand why it is that I was the one asking the questions of the Committee on Open Government, rather than the Planning Board members, the Town Board members, or the Tendy Wordsmiths members, including the Town Attorney.

  1. I also do not understand why there have been no members of the press reporting on these blatant illegal meetings.   

What will it take to have a legal public process in Putnam Valley?

DP


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