Allegany County legislators appear to swap one illegal open meetings action for another

Allegany County, NY, legislators, after a challenge by Allegany Hope Community News, appear to have swapped one unlawful practice for hiding county business from county residents to another.

Members of the Board’s Planning and Economic Development Committee yesterday, during a meeting attended by several other members of the board, attempted to go into executive session, apparently to discuss extending an agreement with Alfred State College for one year “to provide assistance for the development and implementation of an economic and industrial development program for Allegany County with an emphasis on attracting new business and industries to locate within the County and promoting the expansion of existing businesses and industries.”

The contract would have been for $55,000, half that of previous agreements, County Administrator Carissa Knapp told the committee. The current $110,000 per year contract, which has been renewed in one year periods since 2016, expires at the end of this month.

The reduction, Knapp said, is due to Allegany County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) Executive Director Craig Clark, who also supplies services to the county under the contract, now having increased duties at the college where he serves, too, as vice-president of economic development.

The IDA and Clark previously have come under fire from some board members, particularly Dwight (Mike) Healy of Belmont, for their handling of development efforts in the county. Many of those discussions have resulted in the board or committees going into executive session for non-public closed door discussions.

The contract renewal with the college was listed on the committee agenda but when the time came for introduction, Legislator Jennifer Ricketts-Swales moved to go into executive session for one or more of a dozen and a half cited reasons. The move was seconded by Legislator Gretchen Hanchett of Belmont and unanimously adopted.

Executive Session Challenged
At that point, Casey Jones, editor of Allegany Hope Community News, objected to the action, noting that he previously had advised the board of the illegality under the state’s Open Meetings Law of such broad descriptions which don’t help identify whether an executive session is lawful.

He also objected to an executive session to discuss a contract between two governmental entities.

Legislator Andrew Cyr of Bolivar said, “I actually agree with that,” and asked for an opinion from County Attorney Allison Carrow.

Following what appeared to be a confused discussion among Carrow and Knapp, former county attorney who also serves currently as first assistant county attorney, as to how to proceed, Carrow recommended that the board go into an attorney-client session to discuss the matter, an action which was approved.

Although Jones, Clark, and Sheriff Rick Whitney and Undersheriff Scott Cicirello who had been waiting for discussion of another matter, left the meeting, Information Technology Director Keith Hooker; County Treasurer Terri Ross; Clerk of the Board Brenda Rigby Riehle, a stenographer, County Administrator Carissa Knapp and contract-Deputy County Administrator Tim Boyd remained in the room.

Multiple opinions of the state Committee on Open Government, which cite court cases in regard to attorney-client relationships, note, however, that there must be an actual relationship between the governmental body and an attorney for the purpose of receiving advice only in regard to a legal matter and that others cannot be present for such a purported relationship to apply.

Allegany Hope Community News had injected a similar comment when legislators went into an attorney-client discussion during a board retreat earlier in the year at Houghton College, at which time the county attorney advised that she was fully aware of the requirements of such provisions.

Legislators have avoided public disclosure for years on many issues through executive sessions, attorney-client discussions, and party caucuses which generally occur just before every official board meeting.

Committee Takes Action
After the committee reconvened in open session yesterday, Healy moved to amend the extension request, which will go to the full Board of Legislators, to 60 days, rather than the full year, with the cost to be apportioned accordingly. Hanchett seconded the motion which was approved by voice vote with only Legislator John Ricci of Cuba, a member of the IDA Board, voting against.

However, on a roll call vote to approve the motion, as amended to 60 days, Legislator Cyr and Board Chair Philip Stockin of Houghton joined Ricci in voting “no,”, with Legislators Healy, Hanchett, Rickett-Swales, Philip Curran of Alfred Station, and Gary Barnes of Wellsville voting in favor, resulting in a 5-to-3 approval to send the measure to the full board.

This may not be the final discussion in regard to the shortened time period, however, with Legislator Brooke Harris of Alfred, who also was in the legislative chambers, asking if this could be amended back to a one-year period when it comes before the full Board of Legislators. The county attorney said this is correct.

A video of yesterday’s session at which Allegany Hope’s objection was discussed is available at https://bit.ly/3A8XZbL at approximately 22:15 minutes into the meeting, with further discussion and action in the second portion of the session at https://bit.ly/3K50MYc. An earlier presentation in regard to the status of other planning and economic issues is available at approximately four minutes into the first video.
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Allegany Hope last week announced development of a county-wide Open Government Forum to help educate local government officials and the public in regard to the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and Open Meetings Law (OML), identify compliance issues, and provide available resources to assist individuals having difficulty with obtaining compliance in various situations.

Those interested in learning more and possibly becoming involved in any number of different ways with the initiative can contact Jones at AlleganyHopeWNY@outlook.com or (484) 435-0503.

Government responsiveness, along with other associated activities affecting all ages, are among focuses of Allegany Hope as we encourage individuals and families to help one another by becoming involved with our free community information Ambassador initiative for spreading the word about Building Healthy Communities Through Healthy FamiliesTM.

Volunteer Ambassadors assist in various areas of need which you, yourself, may have identified and have a passion for as it relates to greater community awareness, education and action that lead to positive impact in all areas of everyday life.