Weekly paper changes state policy

State auditors close local meeting

Springwater officials defer to auditor’s decision to close meeting

By Les Bowen for Genesee Country Express   |   March 3, 2011   |   Original source

A meeting all five members of the Springwater Town Council with the Office of the State Comptroller last Thursday afternoon appears to have violated the state’s Open Meetings Law.

The board met with the auditors from the Comptroller’s Office in advance of a special audit of the town in a routine meeting.

In a letter dated Feb. 18 and sent to Town Supervisor Norb Buckley, all four four council members and Clerk Pat Willsea, the Comptroller’s Office announced they would have the meeting.

New York’s Open Meeting Law states that all meetings (defined as “the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business”) are open to the public, except for eight specific cases where an executive session is allowed. Regardless of whether there will be an executive session, the law also states that public notice of the meeting “shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations.”

“Please inform members of the board of the date and time of the entrance conference so they will have the opportunity to attend, if they so choose,” wrote Edward V. Grant Jr., chief examiner for local and school accountability.

No representatives of the Genesee Country Express attended the meeting because Springwater officials failed to notify the press, although state law requires local governments to notify the press of special meetings. However, D.J. Smith, former editor of the Express and current freelance writer for Livingston County News attempted attended the meeting, but was told the meeting was closed to the public.

That direction came from the representative from the Comptroller’s Office — whose identity has not been established by the Town nor the Comptroller’s Office. No minutes were kept of the meeting and Town Clerk Pat Willsea was unable to attend as her office was open.

“He (the auditor) told us that everything was legal,” Deputy Supervisor Katherine Bush told the Express in a phone interview Monday.

Similar responses came from Councilman Larry Gnau and Councilman John Curtiss. The Express was unable to contact Councilwoman Carolyn Tinney.

Gnau acknowledged during his interview that while he missed the first 45 minutes of the meeting, the portion he observed was information gathering on the part of the auditors and didn’t appear to be of a sensitive nature.

Mark Johnson, spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office said the practice of closing preaudit meetings is routine procedure, calling it “part of the Comptroller’s Office policy” but when pressed for the specific policy reference, Johnson said the information needed to be obtained through a public records request under the Freedom of Information Law. Although the Express has filed the request, the Comptroller’s Office has until March 8 to respond.