Some Excellent Points By Lew Benton On Saratoga County and the Open Meetings Law

[JK: This post was originally published as a comment by Lew Benton in response to my post on the most recent county violation of the Open Meetings Law. It was so insightful that I am republishing it here as a post to expand its readership]

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.

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