County Violates Open Meeting Law: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

The Health and Human Services Committee of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors met last week. Their meeting was a debacle with members apparently shouting at each other before the committee inappropriately went into executive session. The meeting demonstrated that in spite of the change in leadership, many of the problems that plagued the Board last year are still with us.

The story is laid out in detail in a Times Union article.

The county was allocated 400 doses of the COVID vaccine with apparently very little notice. The county’s Health Department requested assistance from the Board of Supervisors in locating eligible persons to receive the shots.

According to the Times Union:

The state had charged local pharmacies with vaccinating those 65 and older, but created this allotment because of the lack of pharmacies in some areas of the county, according to one supervisor.

TU January 28, 2021

So the 400 doses were only to go to residents 65 or older with “an emphasis placed on reaching homebound seniors.”

The Times Union found that “none of the towns maintain official lists of seniors.” It is my understanding that local municipalities are supposed to maintain lists of disabled and/or isolated individuals in the event of an emergency/evacuation. Such lists are notoriously unreliable due to the cost of keeping them up to date. Apparently, many of the Supervisors didn’t even know that they had such lists. The Sheriff Department’s list was outdated.

The article points out also that it is expensive and time consuming to inoculate people in their homes. In addition to the time required for travel and to give the shot, there is a need to wait an additional fifteen minutes in the event of an allergic reaction.

The TU first tried to contact the county’s Public Health Commissioner Daniel Kuhles for more information.

The Times Union reached out to Saratoga County Public Health Commissioner Daniel Kuhles’ office Thursday for clarification on how the county developed its plan, and was told he wasn’t available unless questions were sent to the county’s public relations agency, Gramercy Communications. The Times Union had not heard from Kuhles by early Thursday evening.

Times Union January 29, 2021

Dr. Kuhles’ resistance to being transparent is not a new problem. In a previous post I reported on the complaint by Mayor Meg Kelly about Dr. Kuhles’ lack of communication. I find it especially troubling that the TU was directed to a public relations firm in Albany the county contracts with. Why should the county need a public relations firm to answer questions that the County Health Commissioner is supposed to be competent to answer?

According to the Times Union, most of the coordination and communications ended up going through Saratoga Springs Supervisor Tara Gaston who chairs the county Health and Human Services Committee.

On Thursday, Gaston admitted she had made mistakes, but defended the intent behind the decisions. The county health department doesn’t have the staffing or capacity to build a list of eligible seniors quickly, she said. The county is in the process of organizing a call center to help determine vaccine eligibility.

TU January 29, 2021

Supervisor Gaston emailed her fellow Supervisors on Sunday night advising them of the availability of the 400 doses and asking them to provide a list of eligible persons to her by noon on Monday. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the email. I contacted Supervisor Gaston last Wednesday (January 27) and to date (February 2) she has not responded.

Allowing politicians to determine who should receive a vaccine is obviously a very bad idea.

She [Gaston] said everything went crazy after that. “This is not good, this is not the best system. We wanted to make sure every municipality had at least some access. I regret that it was presented the way it was. In this pandemic there are no good decisions. There isn’t enough vaccine, enough information, enough people or enough time.”

TU January 29, 2021

Tempers flared at the Wednesday night meeting of Gaston’s Health and Human Services Committee.

At the meeting Supervisors complained about the lack of a plan. At least one Supervisor argued that the Health Department should be dealing with this.

Waterford Supervisor, Jack Lawler, stated:

“Clearly the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Frankly, we should have left it in the hands of professionals.”

TU January 27, 2021

Providence Supervisor Sandra Winney complained, “I just don’t think I’m qualified to say to people, ‘You can get a shot and you can’t.'”

Things got quite heated and citing alleged public “safety” the committee went into executive session.

The law does allow for executive sessions for, “matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed.” But it was unclear how discussing a vaccination plan for 400 people would harm the public safety of a county with nearly 230,000 people.

Times Union January 27, 2021

Kristin O’Neill, Assistant Director for the Committee on Open Government told the Times Union the county erred in going into executive session.

“It isn’t clear to me how having a discussion such as the one you describe in public would ‘imperil’ public safety. If the conversation does not meet any of the criteria …in our view, it should have occurred in public.”

Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government.

A number of Supervisors told the TU that the discussion that occurred did not require going into executive session.

Supervisor Lawler told the TU, “There was no reason, in my opinion for executive session. This should have been a public conversation.”

According to the TU, 130 persons were inoculated in their homes by EMS crews, and 270 were to receive their vaccines at the Public Safety Building.

Disgraceful Opacity Is A Continuing Problem

As readers may recall, the investigation into the COVID salary fiasco last year revealed that the county had systematically violated the Open Meetings Law. The investigation revealed that the Saratoga County Attorney at the time had improperly counseled that the executive sessions were ok.

The new County Attorney who served as assistant to his predecessor apparently is continuing this tradition. He supported going into executive session. It is very troubling that Supervisor Gaston who is an attorney and who must be familiar with the report of the earlier investigation, is continuing this very troubling pattern.

I emailed Supervisor Gaston asking her whether in hindsight she had improperly allowed the meeting to go into executive session and if so, how she planned to avoid future abuses.

Supervisor Gaston did not respond to my email.

The open meetings law is the building block for accessible government. I find it very troubling that Supervisor Gaston is unwilling to address this issue.

7 thoughts on “County Violates Open Meeting Law: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again”

  1. I am so glad I am in my winter home in the Deep South, a place that most of your readers probably perpetuate false stereotypical narratives of our residents, as well as state and local governments. In my rural county in the Florida Panhandle, several thousand people have been already been vaccinated as of last week in an orderly, safe, and expedient manner, managed with call-in reservations, call-backs with appointment times, and a large spacious safe and comfortable facility where the lines of people moved expeditiously. There was also an amply-spaced and proctored sitting area for everyone to stay for 15 minutes after receiving their dose. National guard troops were also present to aid in the fluid movement of all patients.

    It appears to me that you haughty Yankee Saratogians have devolved into a gaggle of mentally-challenged flatland hillbillies, a pejorative term that you, up until now, called your Southern neighbors.

    The joke is on you. Good luck to all you hapless souls.

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    1. As he delivers stereotypical barbs, himself.!!!
      “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.”
      I mean, even the first verse says I wish I was in Dixie. But as most of us educated yankees know…..it should be I wish I WERE in Dixie. Enjoy yer panhandle, and peddle yer nonsense someplace else. Now go git yer shot.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Congratulations on being one of those people who leaves Saratoga every winter for warmer climates.

      I hope you’re also one of those people who makes arrangements for their sidewalk to be shoveled in their absence.

      I notice lots of houses where the owners only clear the snow from their door to their driveway, and ignore the rest of the sidewalk, so the rest of us (including children and the elderly) have to walk on the street. So much for the “Complete Streets” plan.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t help but wonder if the chair position Supervisor Gaston was so proud of was given because the other supervisors knew this rollout would be a mess, in effect making her a public-facing sacrifice, or if they assumed she would not be up to the task. Either way, she and the entire board have been a disappointment during the pandemic. You’d think that with all the time she spends at City Council meetings talking about the Supervisor-related organizations she is part of, that she could have reached out to an actual expert for assistance rather than tasking individual supervisors for a list of vaccination candidates in less than 24 hours.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John,

    Many, many years ago ESSO changed its corporate name to EXXON. The pundits weighed in: “New name, same old gas.” So it goes.

    The County has purged some administrative staff but the ethic and culture that allowed the COVID pay debacle to advance as far as it did apparently survives.

    Every member of a legislative body should be intimately familiar with the legitimate reasons for and the process required to adjourn into executive sessions. Presumably the minutes of this Health and Human Services Committee meeting will identify the committee member who introduced the required motion to go into executive session, the stated subject of the session and the vote that would have been necessary. Those minutes are not yet available.

    In the aftermath of last year’s ham-handed and extralegal attempt to enhance the pay of certain county employees and officials, it was reasonable to expect some reform of Board committee operations and the restoration of the Board’s executive authority. Chief among such reforms should have been required strict adherence to the Public Officers Law and how meetings are conducted.

    With the exception of the four members of the Board of Supervisors (including the two representing Saratoga Springs), a supervisor also serves as the chief executive officer of their respective town. As such they sit as the chair of their town board. So surely they must know when it is and is not appropriate to adjourn into executive session.

    I recall that there came a time when even most board committee meeting agenda items were determined by the county administrator, not the committee chair. This, of course, gave additional power to the administrator that was never originally contemplated or intended. I hope that practice has long since ended.

    Perhaps a few simple suggestions will help. (1) Never attend a Board or committee meeting without a copy of the Open Meetings Law; (2) Remember that the chair and the other committee members are responsible for determining if and when an executive sessions is legitimate; (3) neither the county attorney nor the county administrator have any right or authority to decide the question; and (4) every member should also have a copy of the local law that established the office of and defined the role of the county administrator.

    Clearly the committee’s January 27th executive session violated the so-called open meetings law that is Section 105, Article 7 of the Public Officers Law. It’s not too much to ask and expect that elected public officers actually read and abide by it.

    Here it is.

    §105. Conduct of executive sessions.

    1. Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only, provided, however, that no action by formal vote shall be taken to appropriate public moneys:
    a. matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
    b. any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;
    c. information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
    d. discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
    e. collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law;
    f. the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;
    g. the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
    h. the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.
    2. Attendance at an executive session shall be permitted to any member of the public body and any other persons authorized by the public body.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To Mulligan and Henry. Please forgive my crassness and sarcasm. My exasperation from learning the misdeeds and no deeds that have been promulgated by the CC has gotten the better of me. Every resident of our fine and wealthy county deserves so much better than the incompetence and malfeasance which has become normal. Personally I am hurt as well, as I fondly remember the days when Spencer Helwig as a teenager walked hots for us at Oklahoma and went galavanting around the county at night with me frog-gigging. He is no longer that fun-loving innocent boy. I feel sorry and ashamed for him.

    And yes Henry, my sidewalks are properly shoveled by our retail businessperson daughter who shares our property. The same holds for our FL property, which we have mowed and picked-up when we are gone. Your point was a good one though.

    Looking forward, who will be the next Lew Benton, one who will know the laws, procedures, and methods of implementation to both serve all constituents, and then be the cleric on the mount to explain what happened in the past, or is happening in the present. We need more Lews. We can’t rely on Kaufmann and Benton to protect us for much longer.

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