A watchdog group that's been successful in the past in forcing the release of public documents under the state's Freedom of Information Law says the City of Lockport should provide more information to the public at Common Council and other virtual city meetings.
Paul Wolf, president of the non-profit New York Coalition for Open Government, says his coalition identified several issues pertaining to the city's manner of conducting virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The issues include advance distribution of the Common Council's detailed meeting agendas, post-meeting availability of livestreamed meetings and the council's manner of meeting in executive session.
Earlier this week, Wolf emailed a report to Mayor Michelle Roman, City Clerk Paul Oates, city attorneys and 1st Ward Alderman Joe Oates outlining the issues.
The report points out that the Common Council's detailed meeting agendas, which include the text of resolutions being voted on, are not posted online prior to its meetings.
“The public should see the same documents and information that their elected leaders have before them during a meeting,” Wolf said.
According to Roman, hard copies of the detailed agendas are provided upon request.
In response to Wolf's criticisms overall, Roman said "public input" has remained a priority of her administration throughout the pandemic, which caused physical public access to city meetings and buildings to be restricted beginning in March 2020.
“In the past two years, my administration has moved the city in a direction to be increasingly transparent," Roman said. "Our council meetings, including all work sessions, are broadcast live on LCTV Spectrum, Channel 1303, live streamed on LCTV.net and 90.9 FM radio, and are available on demand at LCTV.net.”
“All council meetings allow for public input at the start (and end) of each meeting. The public can also call in (716-434-1733) and/or email the city clerk for their comments to be heard on the record,” she said.
“We've expanded our website to include more documents, meeting agendas and minutes for committees, boards and commissions, as well as council meetings,” Roman added. “I have open office hours in the evenings and weekends and my contact information is readily available to the public. We will continue to strive to make our city government more accessible to our residents.”
Regarding Common Council executive sessions, the coalition's report identified four instances in 2020 in which these "behind-closed-doors" meetings were called improperly.
New York State Open Meetings Law allows the public to be excluded from meetings only for "very limited and specific reasons," Wolf said, and a motion to enter executive session is supposed to "inform" the public why they're being excluded.
The report referenced these instances:
— Feb. 5, 2020: “Pending litigation” was cited as the reason for executive session. Wolf says the motion to enter executive session should specify the name of the legal case being discussed.
— March 4, 2020: “Personnel matter” was cited as the reason for executive session. Wolf says the word “personnel” does not appear in the Open Meetings Law and that a more specific motion is required, informing the public whether the council is discussing the hiring, firing or discipline of an employee. “The name of the employee does not have to be disclosed, but the reason for the executive sessions needs to be stated with more particularity,” he wrote in the report.
— July 7, 2020: “Foregoing resolution” was cited as the reason for executive session, to discuss the settlement of Lockport Professional Park's tax assessment challenge. Wolf says discussing a “foregoing resolution” in executive session is not proper.
— Dec. 30, 2020: “Litigation” was cited as the reason for executive session. Wolf said the motion to enter it should have stated the name of the legal case being discussed.
The coalition also complained that while Common Council meetings are livestreamed, the city is not posting videos of the meetings afterwards so that the public can view them anytime.
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