Opinion: Boards cannot continue to hide in executive session, says Massena town council candidate
Monday, March 18, 2019 - 5:39 am

“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.” Source: Public Officers Law, Article 7 “Open Meetings Law” https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/openmeetlaw.html

Well it seems pretty straightforward to me that the intent of this law infers that the people’s business be conducted in front of, and in view of, the people. Yet both our Town and Hospital Boards seem to continue to struggle with this concept.

While I haven’t maintained an exacting tally of all the “special meetings” and “executive sessions” conducted by these two bodies, I can conclude there have been more discussions and business performed behind closed doors than in open public. This is disturbing and one has to ask why.

The law specifies eight reasons as to “why” a representative government can meet in executive session. Given that the eight reasons are clearly listed in the referenced law, I would postulate that any grade school student could properly wordsmith a “reason” that meets one or more of the eight “whys”. Yet these two boards continue to have difficulty articulating concise reasons as to why any specific item is being discussed in executive session.

The law also indicates that “executive sessions” are conducted as part of regularly scheduled open meetings – not as seems to be the trend – short notice “special” or “emergency” meetings. Again, these two boards have problems articulating and justifying why such meetings are being called and conducted.

Continuing to conduct business in a series of special or emergent meetings, sometimes with less than 48-hour notice, makes it inconvenient, if not impossible for the electorate to attend. Moving directly into executive session denies the people of their rights to observe, listen, and remain informed. Perhaps that is the true motivation and why each board has difficulty articulating the purpose of their executive sessions.

Our Town Board, and other representative bodies and agencies cannot be allowed to continue to hide public business behind “executive session”. Simply because a topic may be controversial or open to challenge, is not one of the eight “whys” for conducting the people’s business in such a manner.

These practices have become all too common of late and they directly conflicts with the intent of the law. They have become the norm and not the exception. We the people have a right to observe, listen, and remain informed – so keep open the “doors” to our business.

Bob Elsner

Massena Town Council candidate