Three members of the Chemung County Legislators – Bill McCarthy, Bob Briggs, and I – submitted a law to the legislative chairperson that would prohibit the private discussion of public business when a quorum (majority) of the Chemung County Legislature is present. We would like this measure to be placed on the Legislature’s Agenda, most likely through the Personnel Committee, this month.
This is the text of the proposed Local Law:
Although, by enacting § 108. Subdivision 2b, of the New York Public Officers Law, the Legislature and the Governor of the State of New York have authorized members of the Chemung County Legislature who are adherents of the same political party to conduct private meetings at which public business may be discussed, the Chemung County Legislature has determined that the interests of the county are best served if deliberations on public business are done in a public forum where interested members of the community can participate in the discussion and hear the views expressed by the Legislators.
Restrictions on public business at private meetings.
Notwithstanding § 108, Subdivision 2b, of the New York Public Officers Law, the Chemung County Legislature, pursuant to the power given to it by the New York Public Officers Law § 110, Subdivision 3, and Article 3 of the New York Municipal Home Rule Law, hereby decrees that members thereof who are adherents of the same political party shall not discuss public business at a private meeting where a quorum of the Chemung County Legislature is present.
This is a Your Turn piece we wrote that was published today in Elmira’s Star Gazette:
If Webster’s Dictionary had identified a “Word of the Year” for Chemung County in 2018, it undoubtedly would have been “transparency.” With contested races for county executive and nearly all legislative seats, many candidates sought to distinguish themselves by talking about how “transparent” they would be if elected.
Throughout the first ten months after being sworn in, we felt these campaign themes were being honored, albeit imperfectly, within the Chemung County Legislature. Live-streaming of all meetings has been done by Legislator Christina Sonsire with limited push back from elected officials, and there has been some movement toward greater inclusion of members of the public in both activities and discussions.
However, our perspectives changed markedly over the past month.
The Chemung County Legislature’s Republican Caucus, comprised of 12 out of 15 sitting Legislators, has recently held six private meetings – characterized as “political caucuses” – with each meeting lasting approximately one hour. During these private meetings numerous matters of public business such as the 2020 Chemung County Budget and Chemung County’s relationship with the Library District have been discussed.
In other words, 12 of 15 Legislators have spent no less than six hours over the course of a month behind closed doors where the public’s business has been discussed, yet neither us nor members of the community were permitted to attend.
Nothing could be less transparent.
Political caucuses have a storied history in New York. Prior to 1985 it was unclear what, if anything, could be discussed in private when a quorum (majority) of an elected body is present.
Ordinarily, New York’s Open Meetings Law requires that certain measures are taken to protect the public’s right to know, including adequate notice of the meeting’s time, location and agenda; open access for the public to attend; and Minutes of what actions were taken at the meeting that are made available to the public.
However, in 1985 New York’s Legislature passed a sweeping measure that allows political caucuses to be held even when quorum is present. This means that private meetings involving the majority of a political body can be held so long as all attendees who are elected to that body belong to the same political party, where they may discuss any matter they choose, even if it involves public business.
Many municipalities across New York state have concluded that discussing public business behind closed doors is unacceptable and passed laws to prohibit such conduct. We drafted a similar law for Chemung County and urge the Legislature to pass it. Specifically, the law we drafted states that the interests of Chemung County are best served when deliberations about public business are done in a public forum where interested members of the community can participate in the discussion and hear the views expressed by Legislators, and it would thereby prohibit the discussion of public business at a private meeting where a quorum of the Chemung County Legislature is present.
Government at the state and national level is gravely infected by partisan division. We must do everything we can to prevent the same thing from happening right here in Chemung County.