Weekly paper changes state policy

OSC still unable to locate meetings policy

By Les Bowen for Genesee Country Express   |   April 7, 2011   |   Original source

A response related to an alleged violation of the New York State Open Meetings Act is languishing in the New York State Comptroller’s Office while gaining notice of state officials. At issue is the practice of Comptroller’s Office officials to close meetings with local government officials. Although auditors routinely meet with elected officials before and after audits, such meetings are not open to the public, according to what Mark Johnson, spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office, calls “part of the Comptroller’s Office policy.”

Genesee Country Express requested the Comptroller’s Office release the policy cited by Johnson, but more than a month after the Feb. 28 request, the newspaper is still waiting and will have to wait up to two more months before state officials release the requested policy.

“We are continuing to process your request,” Jane Hall, records request officer for the Comptroller’s Office, wrote April 4 in a letter to the newspaper. “However due to the nature of the review process, it may take up to 60 business days before we make a determination and provide those records that may be available.”

Hall said the Comptroller’s Office will respond by June 28.

Meanwhile, New York State Sen. Catharine Young (R–District 57) has taken note of the matter.

“On your behalf, I have urged New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli review and clarify the actions of the Division of Local Government’s policies during intake and exit interviews of the audit process,” Young wrote in a March 25 letter to the Express. Young said she also contacted Robert Freeman, executive director of the State Committee on Open Government, who wrote a 2001 opinion objecting to what had already become a practice of closing public access to audit interviews.

Though the practice goes back more than a decade, the issue that triggered local interest was a Feb. 24 meeting of town officials behind closed doors in Springwater. All five town council members attended a preaudit interview at Springwater Town Hall with Richard Blafield of the Comptroller’s Office division of Local Government and School Accountability, but closed access to the members of the public and failed to post public notice regarding the meeting.

New York’s Open Meetings Law states, “Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public.” The only allowable exceptions are eight specific instances, such as litigation, security and certain types of negotiations, that provide for closed-door executive sessions. Whether the meeting is open to the public or not, the law also requires governments to post public notice and notify local media of the time and place of the meeting. Town officials in Springwater did neither, because, they say, they were told by the Comptroller’s Office that their meeting wasn’t subject to the Open Meetings Law.