Freeman briefs attendees on open meetings
TYRONE—More than 40 people attended a forum by Executive Director of the State Committee on Open Government Robert Freeman Thursday, July 31. During the meeting, Freeman briefly explained the intricacies of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) as well as the Open Meetings Law, answering many questions from the crowd relating to situations they have witnessed in local governments. The meeting was held at the Tyrone Fire Hall and was sponsored by resident Alan Hurley, Friends of Tyrone, SCOPE and the Odessa Tea Party.
While Freeman said his office holds no power to actually enforce the FOIL and Open Meetings Law, he offers advice and opinions to those with inquiries. He said the Open Meetings Law pertains to meetings of public governmental bodies consisting of two or more members either elected or appointed to carry out some statutory function. Freeman said notice must be given to media and posted in designated public locations not less than 72 hours prior to a meeting, and are also required to give notice online as well if practicable. He said the law went into effect in 1977, adding any gathering since then that is a quorum for conducting public business is considered a public meeting, even if no action was taken. Amendments that clarify and reaffirm one’s right to hear the deliberations of public bodies became effective in 1979.
Freeman warned those who attended about words like “workshop” and “work session” being fictional terms, adding even if no action is taken it is still considered a public meeting and must be open to the public. He said special meetings have a special provision requiring at least a two day written notice to town board members, with notice given to the public and news media “to the extent practicable.” Freeman said with the Internet being accessible to most municipalities, it is fairly easy to post notification of a meeting beforehand.
When asked what defines a meeting, Freeman said the proper definition is “the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business.” He said if a majority of a board’s members are in a particular area at once, it does not fall under the description of a meeting. However, Freeman added if they were to begin discussing town matters, he recommends they cease said discussions until the next time they hold a public meeting, as it could be in violation of the law. He added informational meetings where an applicant describes to the board the functions of a facility or program, the open meetings law would apply. When asked about site visits, Freeman suggests the members of a board merely observe, waiting to hold discussion in public.
When asked what to do when the public is locked out of a meeting and not allowed to attend, Freeman said “the public has a right to attend and observe.” He said if a place is available that could accommodate a large crowd, there is not a reason not to hold the meeting there, adding the board must “make reasonable efforts to conduct their meetings in a place that can accommodate those interested in attending.” Freeman gave an example of a New York City board that was sued and had their action stopped for moving to smaller location and packing the crowd full of their friends when faced with a controversial issue. However, Freeman also added while the public has a right to observe a meeting, it is up to the board to determine if a segment of the meeting is set aside for public comment.
Freeman said he has written more than 25,000 opinions in the past 20 years, which are all available online along with the full text of each law at http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/right_to_know.html.