The Allegany County Board of Legislators abruptly closed its doors to the public today to discuss an unknown scope of county finances which appeared to range from millions of dollars to the entire county budget.
Allegany Hope Community News Editor Casey Jones challenged the action as being unlawful as the disjointed proceedings jumped from an initial debate about identifying a funding source for some $350,000 in proposed expenditures for temporary bridge components and traffic signals to how to discuss what appeared to be millions of dollars in overall spending outside of taxpayer view.
The morning Committee of the Whole session had been called as a special meeting to discuss the status of nearly $9 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) pandemic funds after county committees voted earlier this month to make the purchases but weren’t able to determine a funding source.
County Treasurer Terri Ross told lawmakers that they had committed some $3.8 million to various uses to date, with another $2.8 million under active discussion, for a total of $6.6 million in possible total commitments.
Legislators ready to adjourn without action
Legislators were ready to adjourn following the presentation when Ways and Means Committee Chairman Philip Stockin of Houghton asked what the county is going to do about the purchase of the $296,100 panel truss bridge system to provide temporary one-lane crossings across streams and culverts at bridge repair or replacement sites, along with $56,000 in automatic signal lights.
The purchases had been approved by his committee, without funding sources being determined, and forwarded to the board.
Ross recommended that the $350,000 be taken from leftover capital projects funds, which totals some $1.2 million, although there were other funding alternatives, including a $30 million or more fund balance surplus.
This drew disagreement from Legislator Dwight Fanton of Wellsville, Public Works Committee chair, who said the state Department of Transportation is flagging bridges with load limits and more such actions are expected, with monies going to be needed for bridge repairs and replacements.
He then made a motion to take the funds from remaining ARPA monies, which drew support from several legislators.
The other monies
“Other monies. Other monies. That’s been brought up several times,” said Legislator Gary Barnes of Wellsville. “There’s other monies for this. There’s other monies for that.
“What are these other monies?” he asked the county treasurer, to chuckles from several members of the board.
Ross mentioned the leftover capital funds, the general fund balance, ARPA, and other budget accounts, including the entire county budget.
She suggested that it all “needs to be vetted” to determine sources, adding that she felt it should be done in an executive session or an attorney-client closed door meeting.
Closed door motion and objections
Legislator Janice Burdick of Alfred Station, who had voted against motions in committee to purchase items without knowing where funds were coming from, made a motion to go into executive session.
When Jones objected, saying there was “absolutely no reason I can think of that you can go into executive session to discuss budget,” she changed directions toward holding an attorney-client meeting to discuss the subject.
Jones again objected, saying the discussion wasn’t one for such closed door matters under the law.
County Attorney Allison Carrow said there is “no reason” for the public to be able to object to a closed door meeting, that if the matter is a legal question, the board can go into an attorney-client session, and that the board could go into executive session to discuss items involving contracts.
Questionable closed door reasoning
Allegany Hope has been unable to identify any state Open Meetings Law provision which specifically allows public works contracts of the type which were being discussed to be vetted behind closed door.
The board then went into a 25-minute executive session for contract discussions, with Legislator Debra Root of Scio voting against and Legislators Philip Curran of Alfred Station, James Rumfelt of Andover, and Chairman W. Brooke Harris of Alfred absent.
According to video after the meeting was re-opened to the public, Vice-Chairman Kevin (Fred) Demick of Angelica, who was chairing the session, confirmed that the board was in executive session “for the reason to get some input as far as the contract moving forward with an ARPA project or not from our county treasurer …..”
Fanton then moved to amend his motion to use ARPA money, instead appropriating unused capital fund balances for the purchase. The change was approved unanimously.
Funding still unapproved
No subsequent vote, however, was taken in regard to the amended motion, which apparently continues to leave appropriations in limbo at the present time.
In addition, the Board appeared to have violated a section of the Open Meetings Law which requires that a governing body must provide 24 hours notice to the public of all proposed actions.