The vice-chair of the Allegany County Board of Legislators has pushed back sharply against allegations that county lawmakers have been operating illegally when they go behind closed doors to discuss county business, saying he will ask members of the public who raise objections to such actions to leave a meeting.
The vociferous response came yesterday at the beginning of a meeting of the county board’s Ways and Mean Committee, at which Legislator Brooke Harris of Alfred also serves as its chair in addition to the board leadership position.
The legislator appeared to reference a challenge made by Allegany Hope Community News Editor Casey Jones to an attempted executive session of the board’s Planning and Economic Development Committee last week when Committee Vice-Chair Gary Barnes of Wellsville entertained a long list of purposes for which the group moved to go into executive session.
Jones had sent a four-page letter to Board members in early June, accompanied by an Opinion of the State Committee on Open Government, describing multiple violations by the Board of the state Open Meetings Law (OML).
The Opinion included multiple court citations, with a determination that it is unlawful to simply “regurgitate” broad cross sections of the law when a government body goes into executive session, with specificity being required as to the reason for its action to enable the public to determine if it is proper.
Allegany County legislators, often seeming to read from a prepared script, have used the broad-brush approach for closed door meetings for a long period of time and have continued to do so since Jones’ letter.
Harris claimed yesterday that the Board’s action(s) are “within our rights and is not intended to limit the public’s ability to scrutinize our work.”
He declared, in a strained voice, that “we will not waive this privilege simply to satisfy the misinterpretations of Open Meetings Law that may exist with anyone present here today,” apparently referring to Jones, who was in attendance at the meeting.
The leader declared that “(t)his Board embraces the philosophies of government transparency protected by the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law, further saying that “(w)e’re constantly seeking to improve our policies and procedures in a manner that improves accessibility for the public.”
The statement then was followed by a briefing by County Attorney Allison Carrow about her activity in updating Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) procedures which she said should be ready in the fall.
Carrow then claimed that the county does do “a very good job enforcing (the law) and, as always, we do try to improve our efficiency and our policies and procedures and that is part of what we are going to do when we update our policy.”
Jones had informed county officials near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two-and-a-half years ago, about violations in its basic FOIL-required policy.
He also has had to file at least a half dozen Appeals to FOIL requests which were initially denied, including those associated with COVID-19 data, deaths from the virus, county budget preparation information, and economic development matters.
Allegany Hope, as we previously have reported, has been required for months to file daily FOIL requests for localized COVID case data.
Carrow said that several legislators had inquired about whether the county can charge the public fees for FOIL requests.
The attorney said that no one can be charged for filing a request and there are very strict provisions in regard to any fees which can be levied.
Harris then asked Carrow to confirm that there are county expenses in fulfilling FOIL requests, to which she said that “sometimes there are (but) most FOIL requests don’t take too long to respond to.”
She also noted that “any conflicts among laws governing public access to records are interpreted in favor of the widest possible availability of public records to the individual or agency” which is requesting them “because the purpose of the Freedom of Information Law is to give the public the right to access,” to such records, with some exceptions.
Jones verbally requested copies of statements after the meeting from both speakers to be able to compare any deviations between actual statements and those which had been prepared and was told by both Harris and Carrow that the information would be emailed.
Harris still hasn’t responded as of this writing, with Carrow reversing position this afternoon and advising Jones that he isn’t entitled to the information presented “because it was my non-final preparation notes, which assisted me in providing legal advice conveying to the Ways and Means Committee the main points of the FOIL policy overview during our designated time together.”
She said a request would need to be made to the Clerk of the Board for a transcript, for which there may be a fee, or a transcription could be made from the livestream of the meeting.
Allegany Hope filed a FOIL request for both documents this afternoon.
Carrow’s presentation didn’t address any of the issues related to Jones’ claim of Open Meeting Law violations or a 1981 court case, long used as a standard in declaring an executive session and was cited by Jones in June, in which a news reporter had refused to leave a meeting after an unlawful executive session was declared.
The livestream of the yesterday’s meeting, with both presentations at the beginning, is available at https://bit.ly/3QVCHWy. Our story on the original actions which triggered the Harris pushback, including livingstream links, is at https://bit.ly/3K7PfY1.
Photos: Allegany County Legislator Brooke Harris of Alfred, left, and County Attorney Allison Carrow via county livestream.|
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