It seems as though every week I read about a government entity violating open meeting laws or freedom of information requirements. Many school boards, town boards or city councils operate under the incorrect assumption that all personnel matters or all legal matters can only be discussed in an executive session. I once attended a public meeting of a commission appointed by a County Legislature to discuss reducing the number of legislators. Although I was the only member of the public in attendance a motion was made to go into executive session so that the members could candidly discuss their thoughts, which could lead to litigation. When I explained that as a member of the public I had a right to hear their deliberations and that potential litigation was not a valid reason for a private meeting I was asked to leave.
Robert Freeman as Executive Director of the New York State Committee On Open Government, does a great job in issuing advisory opinions and educating the public about their right to know what government officials are doing. Every year the New York State Committee On Open Government issues a report on their activities and recommendations for improving public access to government information. The most recent report to the New York State Legislature makes the following recommendations:
- Require that Certain Records be Posted On-line – government can be a better partner with the public through proactive disclosure, by making records and data available online as a matter of practice and policy, avoiding the need for Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests.
- Records Discussed at Open Meetings Should Generally be Available Prior to or at Meetings – often a public body will review and discuss a particular record at an open meeting, but the record is not available or distributed to people attending the meeting.
- Ensure that the Names, Titles, Salaries and Public Office Addresses of Public Employees are Clearly Accessible
- When Tentative Collective Bargaining Agreements Have Been Reached and Their Terms Distributed to Union Members for Approval, They Should be Available to the Public – Even though labor agreements may involve millions of dollars during the term of the agreement, rarely does the public have an opportunity to gain access to the agreement or, therefore, analyze its contents and offer constructive commentary.
- Limit the Exemption Regarding Political Caucuses in Order to Guarantee that Public Business is Discussed in Public – The New York Open Meetings Law contains an exemption concerning political committees, conferences and caucuses. As such the Democratic and Republican caucuses are allowed to meet in private to discuss political and public business. The entire City Council in Buffalo consists of Democrats. Under the law the City Council could meet in private to discuss matters. To their credit the Buffalo City Council does not hold such private meetings.
What do you think about these recommendations?