A provision in the state’s open meetings law aims to help the public understand what’s going on at board meetings.
The newest portion of the law requires boards to make available any document they may be discussing prior to the meeting. The law also requires municipalities to post the documents, such as resolutions, site plan proposals and budgets, on their website, should they have a functioning website.
“This new provision will have an immense impact over time,” said Bob Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. “This new amendment provides real transparency. No longer will people sit in the second row at a board meeting and wonder what the board is discussing when a reference is made to the third paragraph on page two. That document will be made available to the public prior to the meeting. This is the most significant change we’ve seen in three decades.”
Local municipalities are still working to put the law into effect — documents are available, and plans are being made to post that information on the website. Syracuse has been posting the documents associated with the common council well before the law was put into effect, said John Copanas, city clerk. check his name.
The same is true in the town of Cicero, where town clerk Tracy Cosilmon has long been posting materials on the town website so that residents could access them.
“We’ve always tried to put as much information as possible on our web site,” Cosilmon said. “We have our master plan available there, the Zoning Board of Appeals agenda, even the unapproved minutes from the board meetings. I put up our union contracts, contracts and agreements – I really try to put everything on the web site so it’s easily accessible to people.”
Cosilmon said the new provision in the law didn’t invite a lot of changes to town policy.
“We’re really not doing anything differently [since the new provision passed],” she said. “We are changing over to a new web site, so if there’s something people are looking for that isn’t there, it’s probably because of the transition to the new site, but people always know that they can come to me and I’ll provide them with whatever they need.”
Cosilmon said the law would, as Freeman said, provide town residents with access to usable, important documents.
“The new law is very practicable,” she said. “It’s about providing people with the same subject matter the board members have.”
Enacting the law could be troublesome for some municipalities without the proper technology, though, Freeman said.
“I think there is some fear associated,” he said. “In my opinion, it is unwarranted because it is exceedingly flexible. The pace of change is so dramatic that what is difficult or even impossible today will become absolutely routine in a relatively short period of time.”
Some local municipal leaders are crying out over an additional unfunded mandate, though.
“It’s onerous for small governments and it’s onerous for a small staff,” said Richard Donovan, mayor of Minoa and president of the Onondaga County Mayors Association. “I think it has gone too far.”
Donovan also questions what is considered public under this new provision — for example, if there are notes being taken on a budget worksheet, would that be required to be made available?
“It gives access, potentially, to materials that aren’t official in any way, shape or form,” he said.
Town of DeWitt clerk Barbara Klim said the town has been ahead of the curve, complying with the law since it went into effect Feb. 2.
“We were very nervous about identifying exactly what documents have to go up and the time frame that they have to go out,” she said. “Certainly there isn’t anything we weren’t willing to hand out ahead of time.”
Instead of making copies prior to the meeting, the town tries to work within their sustainability guidelines and uses a copy machine during meetings for requested copies.
“I don’t think anyone is in disagreement about doing it and the benefit of doing it,” Klim said. “It’s beneficial to have an informed population. It makes meetings better and it makes the discussions better.”
Sarah Hall contributed to this report.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.