The Village News: Editorials


 
January 14, 2014

Transparency

 

EditorialWhat does “transparency” in Village government really mean? Is there a difference between the Village government “representing” the residents of the Village and “governing” them? How much “participation” in the Village decision making process is it reasonable for the 2,100 residents of the Village to expect? These questions and more came to mind recently when on several occasions Village residents asked me how I thought the new Village administration was doing.

My answer, for the most part, was that things appear to be going smoother. Village Board meetings are 45 minutes to an hour in length rather than the previous three to four hours, but attendance at these meetings is down. Does this mean the residents are happy with things and therefore don’t feel it’s necessary for them to attend the meetings? The conclusion I came to is that things may not be going as smoothly as they appear.

As you know, the Village Board meets once a month. Approximately two weeks before the meeting, the Village Board holds a work session to discuss, among other things, the items which will be discussed and voted on at the upcoming Village Board meeting. Mayor Fell will not allow the Trustees to bring up information at the regular Village Board meeting which has not first been brought up at the work session. This was evidenced a few months ago when Mayor Fell refused to allow Trustee O’Connor to bring up information at the Village Board meeting she had obtained subsequent to the work session, but prior to the Village Board meeting.

The public is not allowed to comment on, discuss, or ask questions at the Village Board work sessions. They are allowed to sit quietly, watch, and listen to the proceedings, but they are not allowed to participate in any way. Although this approach makes the meetings go more quickly, it prevents input from the residents who, in many instances, have considerable expertise and experience in the matters being discussed. Items discussed by the Village Board at the work sessions may or may not be brought up by the Village Board at the regular Village Board meeting so residents who attend the work sessions, the one or two of them, leave the work session unsure of what the real content of the upcoming Village Board meeting will be.

At the regular Village Board meeting, the “agenda” isn’t available to the public until a few minutes prior to the meeting. By the time they have read the agenda, the meeting has usually started and within a few minutes, the Mayor opens the meeting to the public. At the last Village Board meeting, the audience sat mute with nothing to say when the meeting was opened to the public. Was it because they were happy as could be or was it because they had no way of really knowing what was going on or about to happen at the meeting?

At the conclusion of this first “public” portion of the meeting, the Village Board meeting really starts. However, unless the Village Board is required by law to have a “Public Hearing” on a particular item, again, the audience is only allowed to sit quietly, watch, and listen. They cannot participate in any way. If they try to, either the Mayor or Village Attorney usually cuts them off.

At this point, for all intents and purposes, the meeting is over and the Mayor again opens the meeting to the public for comment and discussion. What’s the point? Things have been brought up by the Village Board without much discussion and voted on. It’s a done deal. What’s the point of trying to discuss something that has already been decided and voted on by the Village Board? What are your chances of convincing them that they should revote an item and reverse themselves?

So, the question is... Does “transparency” in Village government mean you’re allowed to stand outside Village Hall in the bushes and look in through the windows to see what’s going on, or does it mean that you are provided with enough information to make an informed decision as to how YOU feel the Village Board is doing and whether or not YOU agree with their actions and decisions?

Along these lines, I have some suggestions to make. The following simple recommendations are a result of my review of “Open Meeting” or “Sunshine” laws and rules from legislative bodies around the country. In particular, I’ve drawn from California’s Ralph M. Brown Act and its provisions for the conducting of public meetings.

Suggestion #1
At least 72 hours prior to each regular meeting, the Village Board must prepare an agenda containing a brief general description of each item to be discussed, including items which will be handled in closed, Executive, session. This agenda must be provided, at that time, to members of the public as well as all media outlets that have requested notice in writing. The purpose of the brief general description is to inform the public about the subject matter under consideration so that they can determine whether or not to attend the Village Board meeting.

Letting the public know what is to be discussed in “Executive Session” is an important point. Right now, the Village Board simply says they are going into Executive Session, or at best, they are going into Executive Session to discuss personnel. The agenda, published at least 72 hours before the meeting, should state why the Village Board is going into Executive Session and what the subject will be. For instance: “The Village Board will go into Executive Session to discuss the lawsuit brought by Mr. John Doe against the Village of Bellport regarding a slip at the marina.”

The argument for Executive Session in a case like this is that the Village Board doesn’t want to openly discuss what their strategy might be in defending the Village against a law suit. That is reasonable, but the above brief description wouldn’t compromise the Village Board’s strategy. Instead, it would inform the residents as to the fact that a suit has been brought against the Village, who brought the suit, and what the reason for the suit might be. Over time, the pattern and frequency of these kinds of occurrences would be very useful information for the Village residents to have. It should be remembered that “Executive” in this case, is just a fancy way of saying “Secret.” If the Village Board is going to meet in secret, the residents have a right to know why that part of the meeting is being kept a secret.

In practical terms, being that regular Village Board meetings take place on Monday evenings at 7pm, this 72 hour rule would mean that a copy of the agenda for the coming Village Board meeting would be available to the public and news media by 7pm Friday evening, but in practical terms I would urge the Village Board to make the agenda available by noon, or at worst at 2pm on the Friday preceding the Village Board meeting. If requested in writing, Village Hall would provide the news media a copy of the agenda via an email message at this same time on Friday. We at Bellport.com would be glad to publish the agenda for the upcoming meeting shortly after receiving it so that members of the public would have Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday, and most of Monday to think about and discuss the items to be brought up at Monday evening’s Village Board meeting.

Suggestion #2
The Village Board may “discuss” an item which was not placed on the agenda for the Village Board meeting, but they cannot vote on an item or come to a conclusion regarding it until the following Village Board meeting so that proper notice can be provided to the public.

Suggestion #3
When a member of the public raises an issue which has not yet come before the Village Board, the item may be briefly discussed but no action may be taken at that meeting. The purpose of the discussion is to permit a member of the public to raise an issue or problem with the Village Board and to permit the Village Board to provide information to the public. The Village Board can also provide direction to its staff, or schedule the matter for a future Village Board meeting, but it cannot take action on the item because proper notice has not been given to the public.

I hope the Village Board takes these suggestions seriously. Transparency in local government isn’t something to be tolerated by our elected officials. Instead, it’s a goal they should be striving to meet and I’m sure our current Village Board understands that.

 


 

If you have a comment and would like to respond to any of the above, we'd be glad to consider printing your response. Please send your comments to larry@bellport.com. You can read the comments we receive on our Letters To The Editor page.

Sincerely,

Larry Sribnick

Larry Sribnick
Editor/Publisher, Bellport.com