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Jeremy Boyer: A discouraging NY open government spot check
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Jeremy Boyer: A discouraging NY open government spot check

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Earlier this month, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transparency in local governments in New York state issued an interesting report about a small review it conducted.

The New York Coalition For Open Government looked at 20 town and city websites across the state to see how well they kept the public informed about meetings conducted in June.

The city of Auburn was among the municipalities on the coalition's list, and it earned a solid grade of B. This meant Auburn fulfilled three out of four criteria the coalition used for its evaluation. Those four criteria were as follows:

• posting all meeting documents online prior to meetings;

• livestreaming meetings on the website;

• posting video and/or audio of meetings after they are completed;

• posting meeting minutes online prior to the start of the government board's next meeting.

Auburn fell short with the minutes posting, which was by far the most common deficiency area the coalition found. It reported that Auburn's June 18 and June 25 city council minutes had not been posted on the meeting minutes page of the city website as of July 8. A draft of the June 18 minutes did appear on the July 9 meeting agenda.

Of the 20 municipalities reviewed, Auburn was one of 11 to get a B. Two earned a C and one received a D. Thankfully, there were no F grades. Unfortunately, only three got an A: Geneva, Plattsburgh and Rotterdam.

To get the city's thoughts, I reached out to Chuck Mason, the city clerk who oversees the city's website posting efforts, and he emailed the following observations:

"I certainly agree with the importance of keeping in line with the Open Meetings Law and we do our best here at the City to keep our website updated. We have had lapses before and it is usually as simple as I forgot to post them, or better yet, forgot to hit save once I posted them. I do know that for City Council meetings we post the video recordings of the meeting almost always within an hour after the meeting is completed. Minutes sometimes do take longer to compile and I believe the two-week requirement in the Open Meetings Law is a reasonable amount of time.

"One twist on things during the COVID pandemic is that when the Governor's executive orders allowed the meetings to be closed to public attendance (mid-March through July 6), one requirement was to provide transcripts of the meetings within a reasonable amount of time. My take on that was because it was a requirement of the executive order I incorporated the transcriptions into the meeting minutes and that took longer to compile but the two-week window was still a reasonable window of time."

I appreciate Chuck Mason's thoughts. I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: the city's website is unquestionably among the most robust in the Cayuga County area when it comes to posting key government records.

There's room for improvement on the Auburn site, but I'd be delighted if most of the towns and villages in our coverage area had Auburn's level of record posting. The truth is, most of them are downright atrocious. Even with many of the towns and villages getting the ability to tie into the county's revamped website a couple of years ago, many of them have totally neglected the agendas and meeting minutes sections.

I encourage everyone who lives in a Cayuga County town or village to check their sites and see how easy it is to find out what happened at recent meetings and what will be discussed at the next meeting. If you can't find a satisfactory answer, get in touch with your supervisor, mayor and clerk. Ask them to do better.

There's also an opportunity for a push from the state Legislature when it comes to meeting minutes. The New York Coalition For Open Government cited the results of its spot check in calling for an Open Meetings Law change that would require minutes be posted in a timely manner on the government entity's website.

"Without a legal mandate in place, seventy percent of local governments studied are not making information regarding their actions available in a timely manner," it said in a press release. "It does not make sense in today’s electronic age that New York requires live streaming meetings, posting recordings of meetings but does not mandate the posting of meeting minutes."

Executive editor Jeremy Boyer’s column appears Thursdays in The Citizen and he can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or jeremy.boyer@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer

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