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Open Meetings Law

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Journalists make a living often by shining a light on the behind-the-scenes actions of government officials and other people in power. The role of the press is critical to a healthy society. To promote open government, both the federal and state governments have strong laws that preserve a person’s rights to access government records and meetings. Journalists regularly rely on these laws to do their job, but these rights belong to all people. Anyone can request records and attend the meetings of elected officials.

In last week’s issue, TBR News Media participated in Sunshine Week, sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The initiative’s goal is to better inform the public of their open government rights to access records and meetings of government entities of all sizes. We focused on New York State’s Freedom of Information Law and found that some local government offices were following antiquated practices.

Since 1978, governments in New York have been required to adopt a record access code consistent with that of New York State. Not every government is up to date. We found that most government offer preprinted FOIL request forms on their website but lacked record access clause in their online code book.

Fortunately, the state’s Department of State Committee on Open Government makes it easy for officials to update their code. Its website provides model regulations that can be easily adopted.

We’re proud to say that in response to our reporting, Port Jefferson Village quickly agreed to review and revise their code as needed. Another village, Head of the Harbor, was more resistant.

It’s important for people to know that since 2006 New York State requires that government entities accept and respond to FOIL requests via email, if they have email. If they use emails internally, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, Robert Freeman, said that it’s hard to imagine why it can’t be used for record access. New York was the first state in the nation to address this problem. In today’s electronic age, there’s little need to physically go to town or village hall to request or receive records.

Transparency in government is imperative, and we encourage all town and village halls, as well as schools, to review their practices to ensure the easiest means for the public to access records. The more resistant a government entity is to follow open government rules, the more critical it is for people to challenge it.

For more information on New York’s Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law, visit www.dos.ny.gov/coog/.

Observe, educate yourself and then make your voice heard. Stock photo

By Lisa Scott

The League of Women Voters (LWV) has a strong commitment to open government and civic engagement. Protecting our right to know is integral to the health of our democracy. One important way to ensure that decisions are made with public input and oversight is for citizens to observe government meetings.

New York State’s Open Meetings Law, often known as the Sunshine Law, went into effect in 1977. Amendments that clarify and reaffirm your right to hear the deliberations of public bodies became effective in 1979.

In brief, the law gives the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to the debates and watch the decision-making process in action. It requires public bodies to provide notice of the times and places of meetings and keep minutes of all action taken.

The Open Meetings Law provides the public with the right to attend meetings of public bodies, but it is silent concerning the ability of members of the public to speak or otherwise participate. Although public bodies are not required to permit the public to speak at their meetings, many have chosen to do so. In those instances, it has been advised that a public body should do so by adopting reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally. (To learn more about the Open Meetings Law, visit www.dos.ny.gov/coog/right_to_know.html.)

To start exercising your rights, go to a government meeting as an observer so that you become familiar with the procedures and rules and the issues. Acquaint yourself with the protocols for public comment, so that you can speak to these issues when appropriate.

In order to encourage every Suffolk County resident to become familiar with their elected officials, the LWV compiles and prints ​a 28-page booklet annually called the ​Directory of Public Officials (DPO)​, a guide to elected federal, state, county, town and local officials. You’ll know how to contact them — addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses and websites. You’ll see salaries, terms of office, whether there are term limits and whether they are up for election each year.

The ​DPO​ includes a section with a breakdown and details of the Suffolk County budget, as well as a color map of Suffolk County legislative districts and a list of Suffolk County legislative committees with members, meeting days and times. Phone contacts for key Suffolk County departments and agencies are included too. (The Directory of Public Officials can be viewed by visiting www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/files/DPO2017_ 2.pdf​.)

State, county, town, village, library and school district websites are good sources for general, committee and board meeting schedules, as well as agendas for upcoming meetings and minutes of those that have already occurred.

Local media (newspapers and community websites) report on a great many issues and government meetings. However, you may have concerns about issues that are not covered by local media and should take responsibility to observe and participate when these issues are discussed at government meetings. Be an informed, engaged citizen and participate. Democracy is not a spectator sport!

Lisa Scott is the president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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