JAMESTOWN – The Jamestown City Council appears to have violated New York State Open Meetings Law this week when one of its committees met without providing public notice of the meeting, nor allowing it to be open to the public.
On Monday night, the full city council held a work session that was live-streamed on the city website due to the COVID-19 pandemic preventing the meeting from occurring in person.
During the work session, the council discussed bringing back the City Recreation Coordinator position, but only on a part-time basis. That move will result in the city paying about $20,000 less for that position than it did in 2020. By bringing the position back, it will allow the city to move forward with various events and activities that have been put on hold due to the pandemic. That includes recreational and youth sports leagues, as well as other parks-related activities.
As part of the discussion, it was also noted that the city’s Finance Committee had met earlier in the day. However, that meeting was not open to the public by video and also the public was never notified a meeting would occur. This is an apparent violation of two sections of the New York State Open Meetings Law.
According to section 103 of NYS Open Meetings Law:
“Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public, except that an executive session” and;
“A public body that uses videoconferencing to conduct its meetings shall provide an opportunity for the public to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates.”
And according to section 104 of the state Open Meetings Law:
“Public notice of the time and place of every meeting shall be given or electronically transmitted, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto”;
“If videoconferencing is used to conduct a meeting, the public notice for the meeting shall inform the public that videoconferencing will be used, identify the locations for the meeting, and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations”; and,
“When a public body has the ability to do so, notice of the time and place of a meeting given in accordance with subdivision one or two of this section, shall also be conspicuously posted on the public body’s internet website.”
WRFA reached out to City Council president Tony Dolce following the meeting, who said that the Finance Committee met at the request of Mayor Eddie Sundquist to discuss bringing back the City Recreation Coordinator position on a part time basis. He also said it was a last minute request from the mayor, so there was no time to publicly post the meeting was going to take place, nor have it be streamed live on the city website.
Dolce also said that any discussion and comments that were made during the nonpublic committee meeting were also reiterated during the publicly broadcast full council meeting. As a result, he said he didn’t view it as a violation of the state open meeting law.
“The Mayor called the very brief meeting to update the finance committee before it was discussed to the full council,” Dolce explained. “There was no intent to hide anything. It was purely informational and completely discussed in open session. We did not discuss anything else that was on the official agenda that was submitted and reported on in the meeting. Again no vote or action was taken. It’s no different than if we were meeting in person and [the mayor] called us in his office before he brought it to the full council and the public.”.
However, the state committee on open government has been clear in various rulings that anytime a public body meets, even if it is just to discuss public business without taking any action, it must be open to the public unless the discussion falls under the category of what is permitted for an executive session.
While the mayor reportedly requested the private committee meeting take place, as the city’s top executive, he is not a member of the city’s legislative body and does not have the legal authority to require the meeting occur. Either Dolce, as council president, or committee chair Kim Ecklund, could have denied the request and cited the state open meetings law as the reason. Either of the two could have also requested the meeting begin at 7 p.m. when the full council work session started, so that it could be live-streamed to the public. The work session could have then started following the conclusion of the “very brief” committee meeting.
WRFA has reached out to the city clerk to request the meeting minutes of the committee meeting be provided. According to Section 106 of the state Open Meetings Law:
“Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meeting except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session.”
This is the second time the council has violated state open meetings law in less than four months. Last November, The city council also violated the state open meetings law when it held a public hearing on the 2021 city budget, but it was not live streamed.
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.