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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

New Hartford Public Library and the Open Meetings Law...Part 2

In a March 18, 2011 opinion letter also written by Camille Jobin-Davis, Assistant Director of the Committee on Open Government, in response to an inquiry regarding the Board of Education of the Massena Central School District, several additional questions regarding the Open Meetings Law are addressed.

Even though the opinion letter is based on a question posed by another entity, we thought the information is worth mentioning since they may very well be questions that the New Hartford Public Library Trustees might have at some point in time:
Does the applicability of the Open Meetings Law change if a committee consists of three members of a governing body, and in addition, a fourth or fifth person, not a member of the governing body, is designated to serve on the committee?

What if each committee of the Board consisted solely of its own members, plus the Superintendent as an ex officio member?

Although that is not exactly the case here, what if additions of that nature were made to evade the applicability and intent of the Open Meetings Law?
The answer given in the Opinion Letter:
From our perspective, when the core membership of an entity consists of members of a governing body, the kinds of additions or actions described in those questions would not change the essential character of the entity.

In this case [Board of Education of the Massena Central School District], the core membership of such a committee includes three Board members, plus “at least two or more members of the school administration.” The core members, typically having been designated by means of a resolution approved by the Board, presumably may be removed only by action taken by the Board. Their status on the committee is likely permanent, unless and until the Board as a whole takes action to remove them or until they no longer serve on the Board.
The fact that committees of the New Hartford Public Library are comprised of current board trustees as well as members of the general public makes no difference. The mere fact that two (2) or more members of the governing body serves on the committee makes any meetings held by that committee an open meeting.

According to several written opinions of the Committee on Open Government:
With respect to the general intent of the Open Meetings Law, the first sentence of its legislative declaration, §100, states that:

"It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy."
With that in mind, the question town residents should be asking is...

The New Hartford Public Library is primarily funded by public tax dollars...why is the Board President, who also happens to be an attorney, and other members of the Library Board of Trustees continually trying to circumvent the Open Meetings Law so they can continue to conduct business behind closed doors?

One more thing, on the tape of yesterday's library trustee meeting, Mary DuRoss is heard recounting the events of the June 9th Re-Charter Committee meeting. Linda Romano asked Mary, for the record, to clarify who was at the June 9th meeting.

Mary DuRoss responds...Connie Stephens, Kevin Kelly, Earle Cunningham, Virginia Emmert, Ed Wiatr, Jr. and of course Mary was there.

By Mary's own recollection, we count six (6) members of the Board of Trustees present at that committee meeting. The total Library Board of Trustees is eleven (11), wouldn't six (6) trustees who gather to conduct library business be considered a quorum and therefore wouldn't the meeting be required to comply with the Open Meetings Law?

There are only three (3) board members appointed to the Re-Charter Committee...were the other three (3) trustees who are not appointed members of the committee merely there to sit in the audience?

Trustees, other than those appointed to a committee most certainly can attend committee meetings; however, if a quorum of trustees is in attendance at a committee meeting, in order to avoid a violation of the Open Meetings Law, those who are not committee members must sit as part of the audience, not at the board table and they cannot take part in any discussions or votes.

If the (3) trustees who are not members of the committee were not there in their official capacity as library trustees but merely as a member of the audience just like any other member of the public, then it must have been a meeting open to the can't exclude some people and allow others to be part of the audience.

So, was the violation of the Open Meetings Law on June 9th based on the fact that a quorum of the Library Trustees met to conduct library business or a committee comprising three (3) members of the Board of Trustees met to conduct library business? Either way, the meeting was in violation of the Open Meetings Law because no prior notice of the time and place of the meeting was given to the public.

The Open Meetings Law clearly states such a meeting IS to be open to the public. The meeting was held in a public building; we were openly videotaping; we have every right to be there to videotape. Once we videotape, we own the video and we are free to do what we wish with that video.

Here is a short videotape posted by villageofvictory on Youtube with Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government answering questions regarding videotaping.

If we can be so bold as to quote Robert Freeman, a very humorous speaker, regarding videotaping people at a public meeting even if they don't like being videotaped:

"People should grow the Hell up!"
Sounds like sage advice from someone who is well versed in the all the little nuances of the Open Meetings Law!

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