The Allegany County Board of Legislators is dramatically more secretive in holding political caucuses, apparently to discuss county business, than that disclosed by three out of four adjoining New York counties.
The determination comes in an Allegany Hope Community News followup to a report issued today by the New York Coalition for Open Government in regard to a gap in the state’s Open Meetings Law which allows political caucuses of local government boards to avoid New York State public transparency requirements, although some modifications have been established by the courts.
Williamsville attorney Paul Wolf, who is president of the state advocacy group, outlined the history of the Open Meetings Law and the caucus exemption during an online press conference which cited Allegany County as among the 85 percent of 27 county governments for which closed door political party meeting confirmations were able to be obtained.
Initial query response was minimal
Only 14 responses, or 25 percent of officials in counties outside New York City, replied to an initial Coalition questionnaire as to whether lawmakers hold party caucuses, on what basis, whether county meeting agenda items are discussed in the caucus prior to the public meeting, and the purpose of the session.
After numerous followups, the Coalition was able to obtain through news reporters and other research, information on 27 counties total, representing 47% of the 57 outside New York City.
Of those, Wolf said, 23 hold private caucuses, with only Essex, Madison, Ontario and Yates counties reporting none.
In Allegany County, as we have reported previously and in stories this week, county legislators regularly meet in closed door sessions for approximately a half hour prior to each regular Board meeting, with little, if any, discussion or comments occurring during the public sessions where action is dominated by ongoing roll call votes as formal resolutions are introduced and adopted.
It is unknown as to whether any additional, unannounced caucuses are held.
Some board members have alleged at different times that items are discussed in committee meetings, although a major portion of department requests receive no questions in those sessions.
Caucuses in adjoining counties
Cattaraugus County isn’t listed in today’s report as responding to the Coalition’s request for information. Clerks of the Board in other adjoining counties reported minimal caucus activity, primarily related to party-related determinations:
— Wyoming: “At least once (caucus) per year …. To determine Chair, Temporary Chair, Vice Chair and Clerk to the Board for the following year.”
— Livingston: “caucus meetings (are held) in December of each year to determine the official (news)papers for the following year.”
— Steuben: “Rarely” hold party caucuses to discuss county agenda items. “Both parties meet to nominate a Legislative Leader on a Bi-Annual basis when the new Legislature is being formed.”
Allegany Hope, which earlier had provided information to the Coalition in regard to Allegany County caucuses, obtained the responses from the state organization for the other counties following its press conference.
Wolf noted today that legislators don’t have to announce caucuses, as they do with regular meetings, can have county attorneys, other officers and anyone else they desire attend the sessions, but exclude reporters and the public.
He said some county bodies have held caucuses behind closed doors for hours to discuss and determine an issue before bringing it to open scrutiny before its vote.
Coalition recommendations to curtail caucuses
The Coalition will be recommending to state legislators that they “eliminate the ability to hold caucus meetings at the local level” and “amend the Open Meetings Law so that at any gathering of at least 2/3 of the members of a public body, the Open Meetings Law applies unless they are discussing party business.”
Wolf also advocated for local government taking action to “pass their own law preventing the discussion of public business during a caucus meeting.”
Allegany Hope Community News pointed out the discrepancy between the two pieces of state legislation in that a majority of lawmakers constitute a quorum and can transact business.
The state organization director indicated the part in regard to a 2/3 representation had come from a bill already introduced in the State Legislature.
Local residents action
He also told another inquirer that if people feel governments should be transparent they should contact their local representatives and request implementation of a local law, such as one in the City of Ithaca and other areas, which prohibit public business being discussed in caucuses.
The full report, published today, including the history of applicable portions of the law, court decisions, and the reason for recommended changes, is available at https://bit.ly/3tqMif6, along with prior documents which show significant disregard by local governments throughout the state as it relates to public Right to Know laws.
Allegany Hope is a member of the New York Coalition for Open Government and has challenged Allegany County board actions in the past which it feels leads to lack of public transparency.