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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 2, 2009
Citizen asks for end to board’s pre-meetings as mayor and trustees defend the practice
By Philippa Stasiuk
VOORHEESVILLE The village board of trustees’ longstanding practice of holding workshops downstairs prior to the monthly board meeting may violate New York’s Open Meetings Law, according to Robert J. Freeman, director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
At the public session of the board meeting on March 24, village resident Steve Schreiber questioned the board’s practice of conducting regular business in a workshop session downstairs in the village’s offices prior to the board meeting, which is held upstairs in the courtroom.
A year ago, the Pleasant Street resident asked about improving the village’s website. Last week, he reiterated those concerns as well as mentioning the downstairs workshop meetings.
“A workshop is set up to deal with specific issues, not to conduct routine business of the board, which seems to be conducted here. I think discussing routine business of the board violates the spirit of the Open Meetings Law,” said Schreiber. “The law states that deliberations that precede decisions need to be part of a public meeting. I suggest that the board cease the practice of these workshops or call them official board meetings.”
Freeman said that in cases like this, he asks elected officials to read the statement of intent of the Open Meetings Law, which follows: 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. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.
Freeman told The Enterprise this week that, in this case, the size of the room in which the board is conducting the pre-meeting workshop may violate the law.
“The public has the right to attend and observe,” said Freeman. “If the room is so small that members of the public can’t comfortably attend and if there’s a location where they can, having it there would be unreasonable and therefore contravene the Open Meetings Law. If there is an alternative site to accommodate those attending, our advice would be that it would unreasonable not to hold the meeting in that location.”
The workshop portion of the village board meetings occurs at 6 p.m. downstairs in the village clerk’s offices while the board meeting an hour later takes place upstairs in the village courtroom. Downstairs, the trustees and the mayor sit around a table, facing each other behind the clerk’s office counter. Seats are not set out beforehand for members of the public but, if people come to the pre-meeting, Treasurer Linda Pasquale or Clerk Karen Finnessey offer a chair from behind one of the desks.
While the meeting hall upstairs has rows of chairs set up to face the board’s dais, the office downstairs has no more than a few seats for the public within sight of the trustees. Unlike the board meeting upstairs, there is no pre-meeting agenda typed out for the public and topics are discussed among the board members in a casual and informal manner.
There is also no official public discussion portion of the pre-meeting. According to the New York State Committee on Open Government, public bodies are not required to permit the public to speak at their meetings. However, many have chosen to do so and a portion of Voorheesville’s 7 p.m. board meeting allows for public comment.
Mayor Conway responded to Schreiber at the March 24 meeting by saying that the venue of the pre-meeting was used for different purposes. “Whether it be the sale of water or the sewer study, people come in and address the board,” he said. “To even intimate that it isn’t an open process is false. Whether the venue is the office downstairs or up here is immaterial.”
Various members of the board took turns to respond to Schreiber’s comments. Trustee Bill Hotaling said, “This is the way the board has been doing it for 20 to 30 years.”
Trustee David Cardona said that he thought it was “the word ‘workshop’ that was bothering” Schreiber and that the board “handled the meetings exactly how we should handle them, we just call them workshops.” Cardona added, “Everything you just talked about, we’re really and truly doing.”
Schreiber countered, “With all respect, these meetings are scheduled at six, when people are eating dinner and they occur in a location that is not entirely inviting.”
Schreiber then said that he had attended the evening’s pre-meeting and that routine business had been discussed that should have been discussed at 7 p.m. when it was announced to the public that the regular meeting would take place. “You say the regular meeting starts at seven. To the public, they think that you’re doing something specific and focused at the pre-meeting workshop. The Open Meetings Law requires a full discussion of the issues.”
Trustee Stevens added, “The public has the option of coming in at six or seven. We’re adhering to the rule of law.”
Conway this week responded through The Enterprise to Freeman’s comments, saying that suggesting the village board was violating the Open Meetings Law was “a stretch.
“We’ve held meetings in the larger room when we’ve had a bigger crowd,” he said. “Certainly if the number of people warranted it, we would move upstairs. It’s not an issue. What’s happened over the years is that the workshop was held on the first floor because things are readily accessible like the files.”
Conway said that, until Schreiber spoke, he had never heard a complaint. “I’d never want the implication to be that we’re holding the workshops downstairs because we’re discouraging people from participating,” he said. “I’ve had people say they appreciate the workshop because it’s a more intimate setting and they can interact with the board more freely.”
Conway said that holding the pre-meetings downstairs started out as a convenient meeting place but, if people feel that they’re not welcome, then he would take it up with the board.
Schreiber’s second issue had to do with communicating with the public. “A year ago,” Schreiber said, “I came to the board and asked you to improve or enhance the website to include meetings, agendas, and minutes.” Schreiber said that, while there were some improvements, such as more information on the zoning board of appeals, it is a year later and there are still no minutes or agendas on the website.
“We have two good models: Altamont and Guilderland,” said Schreiber. “I know you come in good faith but this process needs to be improved. It would make us all informed about what’s going on.”
Treasurer Pasquale said that Voorheesville’s website does not have the technology at present to upload the village’s minutes. Conway said he would be following through with this issue.
As of Wednesday, March 24, the day after the village board meeting, the website had still not been updated to announce the date of the March meeting, but instead had the announcement for the time and place of the February board meeting posted. It has since been updated to reflect the specifics of the April meeting.
In other business, the board:
Heard from Trustee Bill Hotaling that there was no zoning board meeting this month. The planning committee heard from Jim Cillis about a planned subdivision at the corner of Crow Ridge and Helderberg Parkway.
Heard from Hotaling that, pending approval by the Albany County Planning Board, a new beauty salon called “Purity Salon” will open at 24 South Main. (See related story);
Heard from Trustee John Stevens that in May, the Voorheesville Area Ambulance Service’s insurance recovery program will be reporting its balance sheet to the board. Stevens, who during the pre-meeting, called billing insurance companies a “cash cow” before being corrected by the mayor, said that the May report will give the village “a chance to see the income versus spending” for the ambulance service;
Heard from Public Works Department Superintendent Will Smith that he and Pasquali had met with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency regarding village reimbursement for the December ice storm. Smith said the village would be reimbursed for approximately 87.5 percent of the amount it had requested and will receive around $21,000. Smith also said that cleanup is nearing completion and that the village will soon bring in a stump grinder to grind the tree and shrub debris that fell during the storm;
Heard from Conway that the village extends it condolences to the family of Martin Hesselbacher and that “our thoughts and prayers go out to them”;
Approved the use of Hotaling Park for “Art in the Park” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 23;
Heard from Conway that he had received a request from the Albany County Youth Bureau, asking for nominations for five youth recognition awards to be received by April 22. The Youth Bureau is asking for the names for middle- and high-school students in categories ranging from artistic expression to community service;
Heard from Conway that there will be a public forum sponsored by the New Scotland for Sound Economic Development on April 1 at the American Legion Hall to discuss the effects of big-box development on New Scotland. Conway advised the trustees to “be there or be talked about”;
Heard from Conway that he had received an update from several representatives from Albany County regarding the Albany County rail trail. Conway said that there are eight bridges between the trail’s beginning at South Pearl Street in Albany and its end just east of Main Street in the village. The bridges, Conway said, are in various stages of repair and Albany County expects to begin building the trail next year;
Heard from Karen Finnessey, village clerk, that she had spoken with a representative from Energy Service Providers Inc., a local energy provider. Finnessey said the reason for the meeting was to learn about possible strategies for lowering the village’s energy bills and included information about on-demand meters, energy audits, and avoiding paying service charges for the village’s energy purchasing, which she would pass on to the board.
“This is something that Linda and I have presented to the board to try and find less expensive service providers,” Finnessey said later to The Enterprise. “We haven’t made any changes as of yet. This company (ESPI) asked for our bills to review them and gave us an idea of how they could save us money. It’s one step further than other energy providers have done. Now they’re trying to get business but nothing is concrete. If it’s a way to save a few dollars, then it’s worth looking at”; and
Heard from Bill Garvey of Menands about the benefits of using oil-based waste products for street and sidewalk repair, and his concerns about the village’s readiness in responding to potential terrorist attacks on the railroad. Mayor Conway said he would reply to Garvey via letter within the month.