Back Room Government

Is there any limit to what we can do in secret?

What does an article about the dishonest and incompetent Town Boards of Oyster Bay and Islip have to do with Cumberland Head or the Town of Plattsburgh?  I’m glad a subscriber sent us an Email asking that question.

It seems that the Town of Plattsburgh town board, much like the boards of the Towns of Oyster Bay and Islip, likes to conduct business hidden from the public eye and without scrutiny of an investigative press or any press at all as is, unfortunately, often the case.  Fortunately the CHTA has an eye on these matters.

Recently both the Towns of Oyster Bay and Islip prepared 2015 budgets which contained no tax increases.  Because these budgets asked no increased taxes from their citizens, only a few, if any, taxpayers showed up at the public budget hearings in Islip and Oyster Bay.  After the hearings were over the legislators made changes to the budgets (which is their right), and passed their “final budgets”. But these final budgets included considerable tax hikes.  There was no warning, and no debate or discussion in front of the public. When were these tax increases discussed? Certainly discussions were out of public view.  So, where and how were higher taxes discussed?  Was it by email, as was recently done for other issues by the City of Plattsburgh Council, in a Caucus, by telephone or in the hallway?   You can be sure that whatever method was used it did not serve the “spirit” of the Open Meetings Law.

In 1977 the NYS Open Meetings Law (OML) went into effect with the purpose of ensuring that the business of public entities is conducted in an “open and public manner”. The Legislative Declaration reads:

It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.

 Although the letter of the Open Meetings Law does not address discussing town business in caucuses, or conducting business via email, telephone calls, or in a hallway the “spirit of the law” contained in the Legislative Declaration is to ensure the public a view on the town’s business being done.   The Spirit of the law is the intent of those who wrote it.  When one obeys the spirit of the law he is doing what the authors of the law intended though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.  On the other hand, one can choose to intentionally evade the “spirit of the law” while following the letter of the law.  One need only exploit technicalities, loopholes, and ambiguous language or, in other words, “game the system”.

 So what does all of this have to do with the Town of Plattsburgh?

In the same manner as the Towns of Oyster Bay and Islip, the Town of Plattsburgh held a public hearing on the 2015 Preliminary Budget on November 6, 2014 at 7:05 PM.  In spite of tax increases, that the press didn’t cover, few taxpayers attended.  And, like Oyster Bay and Islip, after the public hearing, changes were made to the budget.  These changes were NEVER mentioned, discussed or debated in any public forum or meeting.  On November 14, 2014 the Town Board passed the 2015 final budget by resolution #014-373, a budget that was not even available to the public prior to its passage. It was kind of like they had to pass the budget so the public could find out what was in it!

Certainly changes to the budget had to have been discussed somehow, somewhere.  Since there was no debate or discussion in view of the public, I filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request asking to see all documents, memos and/or emails regarding the changes from the 2015 preliminary budget to the 2015 final budget. I was told, by email, that there were no documents, and that the changes to the budget had been worked out through conversations among the board members.  Doesn’t this sound just like Oyster Bay and Islip!  Not quite in keeping with the “Spirit Of The Law” I’d say.

Even worse, the day before I received the Town’s response to my FOIL regarding the changes to the final budget, the Town Board, at the December 1, 2014 Town Meeting, gave all non-union town employees a 2% salary increase for 2015 and 2% for 2016 by resolution #014-384.  Not only was this never discussed in any of the many budget workshops or in any previous Town Meetings, this resolution approving the raise was not even posted on the TOP website prior to the December 1, 2014 meeting.  All the other resolutions were posted.  Why not #014-384?  Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t object to a pay increase for employees.  They all went without one last year.   But what I do object to is the Town Board’s Machiavellian conduct, similar to that of the Town Boards of Oyster Bay, Islip and the Plattsburgh City Council.

The only difference for the Town of Plattsburgh is that it seems to enjoy a benevolent disinterest from the local Press.  We at the CHTA are interested in what our Town government does.  We are especially curious about what it does in secret and why secrecy seems to often be more comfortable for the Town Board than honest disclosure.

For more on the OML click here.