It appears that the committee which authorized the raises for “essential” county employees was in violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law which would make their action null and void.
Most meetings of public bodies that transact business are covered by the New York State Open Meetings law. This law was adopted so that decisions affecting the public would not be made secretly. It requires public bodies to give notice of when they meet, allow the public access to the meeting, and publish minutes of the meeting.
The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors’ resolution which allowed for the 50% increase in salaries for “essential” workers authorized a committee made up of three Supervisors and two administrative staff members to decide staffing and set salaries for County employees. The committee was not given a name. For our purposes I will refer to it as the “Special Committee.”
At some point following the meeting that adopted the resolution, this committee apparently met outside of public view and instituted the time and a half raises.
I contacted the New York State Committee on Open Government and spoke to Kristin O’Neil, the Deputy Director of the office. I reviewed with Ms. O’Neil the section of the County resolution that created the “Special Committee”. She told me that if the committee had been simply operating in an advisory capacity to the Board of Supervisors it would not have been covered by the Open Meetings Law. As the “Special Committee” was empowered to actually take action on behalf of the County government, however, it was required to follow the provisions of the Open Meetings law.
The law requires that the public be notified as to when and where such a meeting will occur prior to the meeting. The meeting must be open to the public and the minutes of such meetings must be available to the public.
Following my conversation with Ms. O’Neil I went to the County’s website and accessed the calendar that lists public meetings. I could find no entry for this “Special Committee.” I also went to the page on the website that provides access to the minutes of the public meetings and could find no entry.
Any action take by a public body in violation of the Open Meetings Law is invalid. My experience observing the courts is that they would permit the County to take corrective action. At a minimum the “Special Committee” would, following proper public notice, be required to meet again to retroactively approve their action.
I have written to the County Attorney, Stephen Dorsey, asking him to address this issue. The full text of my inquiry is at the end of this post.
It is also unclear whether the Board of Supervisors had the authority to delegate the power to set salaries to an ad hoc committee. I will be writing to the Comptroller of the State of New York advising them of the County’s actions and asking for an opinion.
Email To County Attorney Stephen Dorsey
I contacted the New York State Committee on Open Government regarding the committee established in resolution 84 at the March 17, 2020 meeting held under the auspices of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors. I spoke with Kristin O’Neill, Assistant Director of the State’s Committee. I reviewed the resolution with her with special attention to the following:
RESOLVED, that the Chair of the Board, the Chair of the Law and Finance Committee, the Chair of the Human Resources and Insurance Committee, the County Administrator and the Director of Human Resources shall have the authority to jointly determine appropriate County employee staffing levels and rates of compensation that are consistent and in compliance with the current directives of any Executive Order issued by the Governor of the State of New York relative to local government staffing levels; and be it further ….
Ms. O’Neill confirmed my reading of the text that the committee was not charged to act in an advisory capacity but was manifestly granted full authority to establish “staffing levels and rates of compensation.” As such she advised me that the committee would be subject to the Open Meetings Law.
I have looked at the calendar on the County website. As the resolution did not ascribe a name to the committee, I cannot be sure, but am impelled to note that none of the names in the calendar appeared to be that group of officials. I also looked in the minutes option and similarly could not find anything related to the committee at issue.
Was there notice provided to the public prior to the committee meeting? Are there minutes that memorialize the deliberations and actions of its members, and are they now available to the public? I note that, as a clear matter of law, two verities dominate this inquiry: (1) the Freedom of information Law (FOIL) pertains to and defines the public’s right to government records; and (2) the Open Meetings Law pertains to and defines the public’s right to attend the meetings of public bodies. Both of these statutory enactments are settled matters of public policy in New York, and are grounded in a presumption of meaningful and timely access.
In light of the above, would you concur that the committee was and is covered by the New York State Open Meetings Law, and that records of its proceedings are likewise covered by the FOIL?
Thank you for your attention in this matter.
Sent from my iPad