GLOVERSVILLE — After reviewing an advisory opinion from the state Committee on Open Government, Mayor Vince DeSantis said the Common Council will now conduct all of its council committee meetings as public meetings — subject to New York state’s Open Meetings Law.
“We have been doing it wrong, so we’re going to correct it going forward,” DeSantis said of the non-public council committee meetings.
DeSantis said the Common Council has conducted their committee meetings in private for as long as he’s served either as a council member, going back to 2015, or as mayor. This was done under the theory that New York state’s Open Meetings Law only requires meetings containing at least a quorum of the full council to be held in public.
The Leader-Herald requested the advisory opinion from Kristin O’Neill, the assistant director of the Committee on Open Government, after the Common Council voted 6-2 during its Jan. 1 organizational meeting to delete the “Section I Non-member Rights” portion of the Common Council’s Standing Committees General Rules of Procedure.
The Section I Non-member Rights stated: “Any Councilmember may attend a Standing Committee meeting regardless of membership; and, with the consent of the chair or a majority of the committee members, may address the committee. The time may be limited to five (5) minutes.”
First Ward Councilwoman Marcia Weiss introduced the motion to eliminate the rule. She argued that allowing a fourth council member to attend the Common Council’s 3-member council committee meetings would by default create a quorum of the council, thus requiring them to be public meetings, and creating the possibilities that the four members could essentially make decisions without the rest of the council present.
Newly-elected Councilman-at-large Wayne Peters and 4th Ward Councilwoman Ellen Anadio voted against deleting the non-member rights part of the rules, but then Peters joined with the rest of the council in a 6-1 vote to adopt the rules as amended.
Anadio argued the non-member rules were fine as they were and against the premise of Weiss’ position that allowing a fourth member to attend the meeting could result in allowing a committee to essentially make policy for the city without the rest of the council being involved.
“I disagree, because I think there are rules when you’re sitting there that they can’t speak [without formally addressing the committee and asking for the five-minute limited address],” Anadio said.
The question of whether the committee meetings can be private or public was raised by several Leader-Herald readers, including Gloversville Enlarged School Board President Robert Curtis, who posted a question about the topic on the Leader-Herald’s Facebook page after the story about the committee rules change was published.
“What is a non-public committee meeting?” Curtis wrote. “Committee meetings are typically open to the public unless an executive session is called for.”
Curtis’ view on the subject aligns with the advisory opinion O’Neill provided the Leader-Herald, which the newspaper then forwarded to city officials for response.
The Committee on Open Government reviewed the issue of committee meetings of a larger public-body for the Cortland County Legislature on Nov. 16, 2021 and issued this advisory opinion:
“The [Open Meetings Law] governs meetings of public bodies, including governing bodies, and committees and similar bodies consisting of members of governing bodies,” reads the opinion. “Section 102(2) of that statute defines the phrase “public body” to include: any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body.”
The advisory opinion went on to provide state case law president that supports the view that committees of larger public-bodies must be open to the public.
“Because the Committee is a public body, its meetings must be open to all members of the public, including members of the governing body who are not members of a committee,” reads the advisory opinion. “The courts have broadly interpreted the statutory definition of meeting: the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business.” OML § 102(1). In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the (New York state) Court of Appeals, found that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a “meeting” that must be open to the public, whether there is an intent to act and regardless of the manner in which a gathering may be characterized. See Orange County Publications v. Council of the City of Newburgh.”
In the Orange County Publications v. Council of the City of Newburgh case the state Court of Appeals ruled 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.”
The decision by city officials to follow the advisory opinion essentially nullifies the part of the council’s Jan. 1 action that would have prohibited a fourth council member from attending a council committee meeting.
“It’s been years, and it always seemed like it had been done this way, but now that this has been brought to our attention we’re going to correct it going forward,” DeSantis said. “So, any standing-committee meetings will be public.”
Anadio said she’s pleased the council committee meetings will now be public. She said during her first tenure as council member, during Mayor Dayton King’s administration, committee meetings were public, but committees rarely met.
“We always announced those committee meetings, that was when I was in office before,” she said. “But [the committee meetings] were just for specific things, like when we did the Employee Handbook, that was a big project, and we did it in the Personnel Committee, and everybody knew when we were having the meeting to keep people informed. These meetings are not supposed to be constant. They’re just supposed to be for special things.”
Anadio expressed frustration that the council’s current method of working on legislation on the committee level has led her to have to quickly read and understand new pieces of legislation prior to full meetings of the Common Council.
“When I get this legislation [prior to council meetings] that’s the first time I’m seeing or hearing about it,” she said.
Council committee assignments are made by the city’s Councilman-at-large, now Peters. Anadio had served on the city’s Personnel Committee and Audit committee in 2021, but Peters only assigned her to the two-person Audit Committee, along with himself, for 2022. The committee reviews the city’s incoming and outgoing checks.
Peters, however, did name Anadio an “alternate” member to the city’s three-person Finance Committee, which includes Peters, Weiss and 2nd Ward Councilman Arthur Simonds.
Weiss has questioned whether “alternate members” to a committee are permitted by Council rules, and after reviewing the Committee on Open Government’s advisory opinion she said she thought she was on solid ground viewing the threshold to be a full quorum of the council.
“If all committee meetings are open to the public, then as far as I can tell, that has never been done because committees have never been advertised,” she said.
Weiss said she favors the creation of a council committee, excluding herself as a member, to review all of the Common Council’s rules to make sure they are in accordance with all state laws.
“I am all for following the laws and, in order to do that, the entire set of rules need to be reviewed,” she said.