The state Opening Meeting Law and the public's right to know about our government have been strengthened by an amendment that went into effect Thursday, Feb. 2 and by an Appellate Division ruling that was issued, coincidentally, on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Local officials serving on public agencies, councils and boards need to take notice of both to ensure strict compliance.
The change in the law gives people more access to public information before meetings. It requires governments to make documents that will be discussed at a meeting available ahead of time upon request or on a municipal website.
The Appellate Division, meanwhile, has ruled that public bodies must be crystal clear about the reason they are going behind closed doors for an executive session. The court has ruled it is not good enough to cite the particular category among the topics listed in the law that are allowed to be discussed in secret. They must give a precise reason.
The public is well served by both the change of the law and the court's decision.
Now, members of the public have the right to see all of the documents and records ahead of time that are scheduled to be discussed at a public meeting. This is purely a matter of common sense for the public has little chance of understanding discussions by board members as they refer to documents unless they have read them.
The amendment to the Open Meeting Law allows copies of the records to be made available ahead of time for a reasonable fee or by putting them online.
The question that was settled by the Appellate Division has to do with a school board that went into executive session - thus excluding the public and press - by citing only a broad category that is allowed to be handled in secret. The topics listed in the law include, for example, discussions about proposed, pending or current litigation and collective negotiations under the Civil Service Law.
In upholding a lower court ruling that went against the school board, the Appellate Division wrote, "In this case, the court properly determined that respondent violated the Open Meetings Law on three occasions by merely reciting statutory categories for going into executive session without setting forth more precise reasons for doing so. Given the overriding purpose of the Open Meetings Law, section 105 is to be strictly construed, and the real purpose of an executive session will be carefully scrutinized 'lest the . . . mandate (of the Open Meetings Law) be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder."
The court reminds everyone: "The purpose of the Open Meetings Law is to prevent public bodies from debating and deciding in private matters that they are required to debate and decide in public, i.e., 'deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.'"
While local officials are reviewing the new amendment and the Appellate Division ruling, we also encourage them to read the law anew and to visit the state Committee on Open Government's website at www.dos.state.ny.us/coog to make sure they are familiar with other basic information regarding open government and access to public records.
Certainly these changes are being met in the public as well as private sector with hearty applause for surely we all agree everyone has a right to know what their government is doing.