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January 24, 2013

Law is clear on need for open meetings

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The Daily Star

---- — “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.”

— New York State Public Officers Law, Article 7

For anyone who’s not an expert in legal affairs, reading the law can at times be confusing. But when it comes to public meetings, the basic rules are pretty simple. 

The Committee on Open Government describes it this way: 

“When a quorum (a majority of the membership of a public body) gathers for the purpose of discussing public business, the meeting must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take action and regardless of the manner in which the gathering may be characterized.”

So the recent “get-together” between the Otsego County Manor Committee and residents of the county nursing home was, by definition, a public meeting. Which means that anyone — including union representative Karen Carpenter and patient advocates Maureen and Fred Culbert — should not have been asked to leave. 

There’s no reason to assume any ill intention here. According to Rep. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, who is chairwoman of the Manor Committee, the meeting was held at the request of residents, who had asked to meet with only the committee. 

“It was just a get-together,” Stuligross said. “We wanted the residents and their families to be there. I did not consider that an official meeting.”

While the residents may have believed they had every right to a private meeting with the committee, we expect our elected officials to know better. The law is very clear on the subject, and there is a good reason for it. 

The whole thing comes on the heels of criticism from the Civil Service Employees Association, which argued that the Otsego County Board’s decision to sell the Manor violated open meetings law. 

“The actions of the Otsego County board go completely against the principles of transparency and representative government,” Carpenter wrote in a prepared statement about the board meeting. 

Carpenter went on to allege that board members intentionally tried to sneak the resolution past an unsuspecting public without facing comment on what proved to be a controversial decision. 

Whether unwittingly or intentionally, violations of the open meeting law are to be taken seriously. The law’s goal of an informed citizenry can only be achieved when people have full knowledge of, and access to, the workings of the political system — from the smallest “get-togethers” to the highest levels of government.