Two Allegany County online information providers were recognized tonight by a statewide open government coalition for efforts in shedding light on closed door meetings of the county Board of Legislators.
Allegany Hope Community News and Resources Editor Casey Jones was commended by the New York Coalition for Open Government during its online annual meeting for his efforts during some 50 years of working to open government processes to the public.
The Coalition particularly noted Jones’ objections to a closed door meeting last August of the Allegany County Board’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, apparently to discuss extending an agreement with Alfred State College “to provide assistance for the development and implementation of an economic and industrial development program for Allegany County.”
Andrew Harris, principal of the Wellsville Sun online publication, also was cited for additional reporting on Jones’ action.
Some 50 years of open government efforts
Coalition President Paul Wolf, in introducing Jones, noted the honoree’s half-century of work in advocating for open government, saying “he’s not shy about speaking up” and letting the county legislature know that what it is doing is improper.
Jones said “it’s been a long process” over the years, noting that he successfully brought in Chenango County one of the first lawsuits in 1977 under the former state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), soon after the statute was adopted. This was followed by another in 1980 under the Open Meetings Law, in which the sale of property by a local government was reversed by the New York State Supreme Court due to meeting violations.
The aspect of local governments closing their doors to the public is “not something new,” Jones said. “It’s been going on for years.”
He said he finds that some local government officials don’t know what the law says, some don’t seem to really care, and some are afraid of letting the public know what they are doing because they want to avoid any criticism.
His activities also resulted in serving four terms as Mayor of the City of Norwich, being elected under an independent Open Door Party designation.
Public awareness increased
Harris told Coalition members that Jones’ action in challenging last August’s closed door session resulted in legislators not knowing what to do at the time and “raised a lot of awareness” among county residents about the legislative body’s closed door actions.
He queried tonight’s gathering as to how the media can be more assertive in opening up local government to the public without receiving pushback from local officials.
Wolf noted that it takes a “lot of courage to stand up and make those points,” also highlighting efforts by four community residents from various parts of the state who were recognized for challenging their local governments for illegal or improper actions.
These included a Long Island college student who was told to stop recording public meetings and who questioned why required meeting documents weren’t being posted online, presentations being made by developers to a planning board with maps and other documents not being able to be seen by the public, and additional cases of documents not being made available to the public, or properly recorded and retained.
Reporters who have written about these situations also were recognized due to the Coalition believing that without adequate public exposure, the large percentage of violations that occur, along with others the organization has recorded, will go unnoticed.
General public needs to be involved
Pulitzer Prize-winning Editor Mark Mahoney of the Schenectady Daily Gazette, who won the award based on a series of editorials on open government, was the featured speaker for the meeting.
He said there “really is a need for the public to fill the gap” which currently exists in reporting of closed door and other illegal actions of local governments due to the reduction in the number of reporters.
He said media representation has decreased by half in recent years due to changes in newspaper operations, leaving existing news media unable to cover local stories like they did in the past.
Citing examples from his area, Mahoney encouraged attendees to call local media when they are seeing local government violations.
Open Government Forum available
Allegany Hope is encouraging interested individuals to become involved with its Open Government Forum which is designed to connect information sources and public awareness through Information Ambassadors. Further information is available at AlleganyHopeWNY@outlook.com or by contacting Jones at (484) 435-0503.
Rod Watson, columnist for the Buffalo News, also described today that “honest and open government in New York is under constant assault.”
His comments, which included information on tonight’s meeting and Jones’ activities, are available at https://bit.ly/3InFzsN.