If recent actions in the village of Westfield prove anything, it is that the state's Open Meetings Law carries as much weight as a limp noodle.
To recap, a group of Village Board members reacted to news Mike VandeVelde, village mayor, wanted to replace Rebecca Jackson, deputy village clerk, and Vern Luce, village clerk, because VandeVelde felt they were undermining the mayor's authority. Board members heard about VandeVelde's plan and decided to hold an impromptu meeting on Thursday, March 27 - notable because the board typically meets on Mondays.
Before the meeting, board member Rob Cochran contacted the New York Conference of Mayors to see if circumstances warranted such a hasty meeting. NYCOM's opinion was that it did not. Board members went ahead anyway, hiring an attorney at the cost of $100 an hour to give them information on the duties of elected officials and whether they could sanction or remove VandeVelde from office.
Cochran, meanwhile, was able to find out fairly quickly VandeVelde would be unable to summarily dismiss Jackson and Luce - meaning there was no urgency for a special meeting since the matter could be discussed at a regular board meeting.
Perhaps most disturbing is the response of board member Debra Puckhaber when the issue was discussed at a recent board meeting.
"We'll waive that one against all the other times that Open Meetings Law has been broken," she said.
What? Did she actually say that?
Ignorance by newly elected officials of the way the Open Meetings Law should work isn't excusable, but understandable because they may not have been educated on the law yet. To see such flagrant disregard of the Open Meetings Law - and to have that disregard manifested during open discussion at a board meeting - is another matter entirely. The only punishment currently available under the Open Meetings Law currently is public embarrassment. As we have seen recently, that is no punishment at all.
It is long past the time for the state Legislature to strengthen the Open Meetings Law into a device that truly makes elected officials think twice before having illegal meetings or entering into executive session improperly. A proposal being discussed in Alabama would allow private citizens to bring suit under the Open Meetings Act and, if they prevail, receive at least $1,000. A similar proposal discussed off and on in New York would also protect boards so they can recover legal costs if they are able to show the citizens' suit is invalid. Perhaps it's worth discussing possible court sanction or removal from office of public officials who regularly violate the Open Meetings Law.
Citizens have long known the toothlessness of the Open Meetings Law. It is time to push the state Legislature to act.