Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"Special" Meetings Need Special Scrutiny in New Hartford . . .

Other signs that things may not be all well in New Hartford Town is the recent announcement that Town Board meetings will be reduced to once per month and the concern expressed by New Hartford Online that "Special Meetings" might be used as a substitute.

Meetings called upon short notice and with little knowledge by the Public open all kinds of possibilities for abuse of governmental power. Indeed, unless there is truly an emergency where advanced arrangements for a meeting are impracticable, the use of Special Meetings can be regarded as Suspicious and intended to hide governmental action from the Public.

Special Meetings need to be subjected to special scrutiny to ensure that the provisions of the State's Open Meetings Law are observed. It is our understanding that some Town officials may believe they do not have to give the public any more than a 24 hour advanced notice of a Special Meeting (and only via a message posted in Butler Hall ) and that they do not have to inform the news media. If that is the case, they are mistaken.

Open Meetings Law (OML, Public Officer's Law Article 7) §104 "Public Notice" states:
"1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before such meeting.
"2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be given, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto."

The Committee On Open Government, which has the responsibility for overseeing implementation of the law, has already commented on numerous occasions about OML's requirements. In our age of electronic communications, notice to the media, "to the extent practicable," has already been interpreted as requiring at least a phone call. [Since the Town already has an Official Website, we would suggest that an additional notice on the Home Page would not be too much to expect.]

More importantly, the propriety of scheduling meetings less than a week in advance has already been found by the courts to be dependent upon the actual need to do so. Advisory opinion OML-AO-3248 quotes from several cases with full citations given. Additionally, other OML advisory opinions abound, which can be searched at the COOG Website.

Our Town Leaders need to familiarize themselves with OML's requirements.

The Public will be watching.

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