Effective today, documents scheduled to be discussed at public meetings in New York State must be made available to the public before the meeting. The Open Meetings Law applies to school boards as well as to state government departments, and county, city, town and village governments.
The New York’s Committee on Open Government explains the rationale for the new requirement, which appears as section 103(e) of the Open Meetings Law, this way:
Members of the public have on many occasions complained that they cannot fully understand discussions among members of public bodies, even though the discussions occur in public. For example, a board member might refer to the second paragraph of page 3 of a record without disclosing its content prior to the meeting. Although the public has the right to be present, the ability to understand or contribute to the decision-making process may be minimal and frustrating.
When public body has a website, the documents are to be posted on its website prior to the meeting. The Committee on Open Government says posting online is intended both as a convenience to members of the public wishing to inform themselves about the topics to be discussed, and as a cost savings to government entities.
I’m watching to see whether my local school board complies with the law. The Bainbridge-Guilford board of education has a meeting slated to begin in less than 8 hours. My reporting experience suggests that the agenda and all supporting documents would have been made available to the board several days ago.
The agenda for tonight’s meeting is not yet posted on the school’s website. The school says only that it will post the agenda prior to the meeting time of 6:30 PM on the meeting date,” which could mean 6:29 PM. That would meet the letter of the state’s Open Meetings Law, but hardly its spirit. [The agenda that was eventually posted shows a last-modification time of 5:21:32 PM. The agenda includes one of the reports mentioned on the agenda.]
Although the legal responsibility for providing information rests with government bodies, de facto responsibility rests with the public. If people don’t stick up for their right to know, they won’t know much.