JAMESTOWN – The Jamestown City Council held its public hearing on the 2021 city budget Monday night, but it was in apparent violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law due to the live stream not being made available to the public as the meeting took place.
In addition, the council hearing also violated the city’s own rule that prohibits members of the public to attend meetings in person Due to COVID-19.
VIOLATION OF STATE OPEN MEETING LAW
The council’s public hearing on its 2021 budget was held at 6 p.m. on Monday night and was advertised to have a live video stream of the proceedings being available on the city website since it was closed to the public due to COVID-19.
However, the live stream was not working and the public was unable to watch the public hearing as it unfolded.
Mayor Eddie Sundquist’s assistant, Zach Altschuler, is responsible for providing video streams of all city public meetings on the city’s website. WRFA notified Altschuler via social media messenger the stream wasn’t working at 6:07 p.m. and asked if the start of the hearing was delayed. He responded shortly after that he was trying to fix the issue and that the meeting had indeed started. He also indicated that while the live stream was unavailable, it was being recorded and would be uploaded and made available for viewing later in the evening.
WRFA had reached out to Council President Tony Dolce following the meeting. He explained he didn’t want to stop the meeting because some members of the public were in attendance and speaking.
“The Union was giving a presentation and I didn’t feel that it would be appropriate to interrupt him especially since it was being recorded,” Dolce said. He also said the snafu could have been due to the recent power outages from over the weekend.
According to the New York State Committee on Open Government, “the fundamental premise of the State Open Meetings Law is that any person who is interested in the deliberations of a public body may be present to view and listen to such deliberations as they occur.”
Due to COVID-19, Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued executive order that prohibits the public from being able to attend in-person deliberations. However, the State Committee on Open Government states that the public still must be able to view the meeting as it happens.
The State Committee on Open Government recently offered a ruling to this effect:
“In my opinion, if a public body can possibly anticipate that any persons who may wish to attend a meeting governed by the provisions of the Open Meetings Law cannot be safely physically accommodated in the proposed meeting locationpursuant to legal and regulatory restrictions, that public body is required to simulcast to the public, by either video or audio means, the proceedings of the meeting as they are occurring so that all members of the public who wish to “attend” may do so.”
– Shoshanah V. Bewlay
ExecutiveDirector, NYS Committee on Open Government
August 10, 2020
Under state open meeting law, any member of the public who takes issue with a violation has the right to challenge it under an Article 78 proceeding.
However, state law also states that an unintentional failure to fully comply with the provisions in the open meeting law “shall not alone be grounds for invalidating any action taken at a meeting of a public body.” That would likely include the technical difficulties associated with not being able to provide the stream as it happens.
The council was able to eventually get its live video stream working, but not until after the 6 p.m. public hearing had ended and its 6:30 p.m. budget deliberations had started.
CITY VIOLATES RULES ON NOT ALLOWING PUBLIC TO ATTEND
The city council also went against its own rule prohibiting public attendance by allowing some members of the public to attend in person.
Both the public notice for the budget hearing, as well as all other meetings since March, states the meetings are closed to the public and comments are required by 5 p.m. the day before the scheduled meeting/hearing.
Despite its public notice stating Monday night’s meetings would be closed to the public, the council still allowed some members of the city’s collective bargaining units to attend the budget hearing in person and speak on concerns they had with the budget.
Both Mayor Sundquist and Dolce have also informed WRFA and other media outlets that as members of the public, they are prohibited from covering their meetings in person during COVID-19. But both the 6:30 p.m. budget deliberations and the 7:30 p.m. work session showed a member of the Post-Journal newspaper staff in attendance.
Council member Kim Ecklund informed WRFA the newspaper reporter showed up in person once he had learned the live stream was not available and he was permitted to stay for the hearing, as well as the subsequent budget meeting and work session.