Harrietstown reprimanded for not uploading meeting docs
SARANAC LAKE — Harrietstown was given a failing grade by an open government watchdog organization on Thursday for not posting meeting documents on the town website as state law requires.
Harrietstown isn’t alone. New York Coalition For Open Government board President Paul Wolf said 72% of towns inspected in a random check this fall were not in compliance with state law.
NYCOG is a nonpartisan, non-profit watchdog organization that monitors compliance with the Open Meetings Law.
Wolf said the organization randomly selected 18 towns starting with the letter “H” to evaluate, two from each of the nine regions of the state, on a simple pass/fail basis. Harrietstown got credit for posting meeting agendas and meeting minutes on its website, but failed because meeting documents are not posted there.
According to state law, documents to be discussed by the board at a meeting must be posted online at least 24 hours prior to the meeting, at least, “to the extent practicable.”
Harrietstown Supervisor Jordanna Mallach said the meeting documents are always available in the board packet to be viewed by the public in person at the town hall. She was not aware of the state law requiring them to be posted online.
“If we’re not doing something in compliance with New York state law, we will certainly discuss it with our town attorney and take steps in the future to correct that,” Mallach said.
State law also requires meeting minutes and recordings of meetings to be posted online within two weeks of the meeting taking place.
Wolf said NYCOG reached out to Harrietstown before releasing the report to discuss its findings.
“On Nov. 3, an email was sent to the town clerk asking why meeting documents are not posted,” Wolf said. “As of Nov. 29, we did not receive a response to that email.”
Of the towns NYCOG sent emails to, only three responded. One town even had no email listed on their website, Wolf said.
He said NYCOG will send this report to all town board members.
Wolf added that if residents want to address Open Meetings Law concerns they have, they should bring them up to town leaders in a non-confrontational manner. The goal is education and compliance, he said, not accusation.
Wolf said NYCOG’s findings were “dismal.”
Of the 18 towns — all “H” towns, two from each region of the state outside New York City — five passed and 13 failed, a failure rate of 72%.
“The law about posting meeting documents online is not new,” Wolf said. It was passed in 2012.
And it’s not difficult either, he added. He pointed out that several of the five towns that got a passing grade have small populations.
“It’s not really a matter of size or resources,” Wolf said. “It’s really a matter of commitment.”
The law about posting meeting minutes and recordings online is new, he said. It was passed in October 2021.
“Government exists to serve its citizens,” NYCOG wrote in a press release. “Access to public information should be simple.”
Without easy public access to these documents, Wolf said, the public is kept “in the dark.” He asked how someone would know to attend a meeting if they can’t see all the documents of what will be discussed there.
“Basically all you have got to do is have a scanner,” Wolf said.
He said NYCOG plans to send a letter to the state soon suggesting that funding for scanners be provided to towns.
Wolf said that in every report NYCOG puts out — whether it is on executive sessions or the Freedom of Information Law — they find “massive non-compliance” across the state.
Sometimes, he said, these reports prompt changes on town boards. Other times, he said board respond with “outright defiance.”
Wolf made some recommendations to fix these problems. He recommend mandatory training for elected officials on the open meetings law.
He also said other states have attorney generals and independent commissions to monitor compliance with Open Meetings Law, but New York does not. The state needs an entity with enforcement powers, he said.
Wolf said the state Committee on Open Government is a great resource, but it has no power. Entities in other states do have enforcement powers.
Another suggestion is to get the Attorney General’s Office to have an open government unit to receive complaints and have the power to mediate and impose fines.
Wolf also said the only recourse the public has right now to address Open meeting Law violations is to file a lawsuit. That’s not feasible for most people, Wolf said — it is expensive, time consuming and hard.
He said the state should institute mandatory attorney fees for municipalities that are proven to not be in compliance in court.
“If a public body is not complying with the law and that has been proven in a lawsuit, then the public body should be mandated to pay for the plaintiff’s attorney fee,” a NYCOG press release reads.
Wolf said most states have similar requirements for posting meeting agendas, minutes and documents as New York. But New York’s laws are still newer than many other states.
The first state to approve an Open Meetings Law was Alabama in 1915, Wolf said. The last state was New York, in 1976.
“People have this perception of New York being this leading state, but really, in a lot of ways, we are behind the times,” Wolf said.