In the town of Cicero, “open government” isn’t just a buzzworthy term. It’s a way of life.
That’s what the Cicero Committee on Open Government has been driving toward since it was founded at the beginning of 2012. The committee, made up of both residents and government officials, aims to make town government more accessible to the people of the town. It also has the added advantage of acting as a model for other towns and villages in Central New York.
“Our mission statement is, ‘The purpose of this committee is to come up with ideas on how to make information more accessible to the residents and then suggest ways to implement those ideas. The purpose of this committee is to come up with ideas on how to make information more accessible to the residents and then suggest ways to implement those ideas,’” said Deborah Gardner, who founded the committee. “Our primary goal is to make information more accessible to the public.”
The members of the committee, in addition to Gardner, are Dennis Cook, Town Clerk Tracy Cosilman, David Kirk, Mike Labulis, Karen Lee and Mark Venesky.
Gardner, a member of the Cicero Democratic Committee who has been attending and videotaping Cicero’s board meetings for five years, said the idea for the committee actually came from Supervisor Jim Corl last summer when he was still a councilor. The idea was implemented shortly after Corl took over as supervisor at the beginning of 2012.
Since its inception, the committee has met three times. The last two meetings were open to the public, and though Gardner said no residents have attended, they have submitted ideas to her. So far, the committee has been working on a couple of ideas in order to make town government materials easier for residents to attain.
“At this point, we’ve submitted two proposals: streaming the town board meetings to the internet so that the public can watch the proceedings in real time and having articles or columns written by the different departments and published in the newspaper and on the web letting the public know what the responsibilities of each department are or anything else that is pertinent concerning that department,” Gardner said. “We are also discussing the use of social media to get information out to the public, as well as the possibility of using email.”
Gardner said having Cosilmon on the committee has been a huge help, as she’s familiar with Freedom of Information laws and procedures about what can be released to the public.
Having the support of the town is instrumental in forming a committee like Cicero’s, Gardner said. That is what has allowed Cicero’s committee to be successful.
“First, the municipality has to have a supervisor and the majority of the board committed to open government,” Gardner said. “It has to have people willing to use technology to make information readily available. Also, it has to be willing to consider any idea. An open government committee may be helpful, but it is not the only way to approach transparency. For example, a law went into effect on Feb. 2 requiring government agencies to make available documents that will be discussed at meetings so that people can review these documents before the meetings and have a better understanding of what is going on [see story, page 4]. At our last meeting on Feb. 27, we discussed this and found out that the town supervisor and town clerk are already working on getting documents on to the website with the meeting agenda. They did not wait for our committee; they just did it.”
Gardner said this is the most open any administration has been since she started attending town board meetings five years ago.
“The subject of information sharing came up at the first meeting I attended and it has been an issue through two administrations,” she said. “When then-Councilor Corl first approached me about a committee on open government, I immediately agreed, though I was somewhat skeptical; I had been disappointed in the past. In the last two months, I have seen an openness in the town government that is refreshing. I credit Supervisor Corl and Deputy Supervisor [Jessica] Zambrano with most of this and give kudos to Town Clerk Cosilmon for helping in any way she can to get information to the public.”
The Cicero Committee on Open Government will hold its next meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 20 at Drivers Village near the clock. All meetings are open to the general public.
“We review draft proposals and discuss ideas that come up,” Gardner said. “No idea is too small or too simple. And we have a lot of healthy disagreement, but we usually find a consensus.”
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.