Local government officials throughout the Tri-Lakes have been undergoing a painful learning experience about being fully accountable to the public. The evidence of that exploded last week in Lake Placid.
We'll address a scathing state audit report, released Wednesday, in a future editorial. This one is about violations of the Open Meetings Law.
Last Monday evening it came out that, for months, two trustees of the Olympic Village have met weekly in the mayor's office to discuss village business. Sometimes the mayor joined these discussions, making it a majority, or quorum, of the board. The public was not notified of any of this.
This quorum could, and probably did, make public decisions in this back room, having frank conversations about important issues that villagers would love to have heard, but couldn't. It's one thing for a minority of board members to meet privately - they don't have enough voting power to act - but a majority can line up the necessary number of votes to pass measures and make compromises behind the scenes. Then they can roll out a misleading picture of consensus at their public meetings twice a month.
These are the people's decision-makers, and the people should be able to see and hear them make those decisions.
That's why there is a state law about it. The Open Meetings Law should be one of the first things any rookie elected official learns. And since elected officials apparently need reminding, the public needs to know the law, too.
Lake Placid village board members claimed ignorance of the law but thankfully agreed to stop their secret meetings. The Saranac Lake village board did the same thing this fall when Enterprise reporter Chris Knight called them on violating the Open Meetings Law by going out to a local bar together after their meetings. The Placidians showed a clearer violation of the law's spirit than the Saranac Lakers: Theirs were intentional meetings to discuss public issues rather than social gatherings at which public business sometimes came up. Lake Placid board members really should have known better, especially after the Saranac Lake bar expose, but thank goodness they stopped.
Yes, we know the Open Meetings Law isn't perfect. E-mail and conference calls can easily circumvent it, and there may not be much the public can do about that. But at least any violation of both the spirit and letter of the law should be discovered and stopped.
The Enterprise has published summaries of the law in the past and has referred to it in news stories and editorials. You can read the law itself on the state Committee on Open Government's website (www.dos.state.ny.us/coog), but to give you a taste, here is its opening declaration:
"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."
This, we believe.