Capital Region

Open government group calls for online access to public meeting minutes

Amsterdam Common Council does not post meeting minutes online - but has them if you ask
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CAPITAL REGION — A statewide organization advocating for government transparency called on local governments to make public meeting minutes available online and to continue live-streaming meetings even after they open to the public again.

As part of a random review of small cities across the state, the New York Coalition for Open Government found that the Amsterdam Common Council did not post meeting minutes online, the Saratoga Springs City Council was months behind posting meeting minutes and the Rotterdam Town Council could make their minutes more easily accessible.

“It’s not hard to scan and post,” Paul Wolf, president of the non-profit group’s board of directors, said of local governments making minutes publicly accessible online. “A lot of local governments are weeks and months behind.”

The group studied 20 cities across the state, reviewing four criteria for how those government’s carried out public meetings in June: were meeting documents posted prior to the meeting; was the meeting live-streamed on the government’s webpage; were recordings of the meetings posted afterward, and; did governments post the meeting minutes in a timely fashion after the meeting.

The report released Friday found that Rotterdam met all four criteria, though the group recommended the city post its meeting minutes as its own document rather than as part of the next meeting’s agenda.

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Saratoga Springs was criticized for not “timely” posting of meeting minutes. The report noted that as of July 8, meeting minutes had not been posted on the city’s website since April 20. The report also said the city of Amsterdam did not post meeting minutes anywhere on its websites, even though it did post a vote tally for resolutions acted upon by the Common Council.

In the report’s conclusion, the groups calls for strengthening the state’s open meetings law to require that governments post meetings minutes within two weeks of the meeting occurring.

Stefanie Lenkowicz, the Amsterdam city clerk, on Friday said she provides the minutes to anyone who asks, noting they were usually available within a couple of days of the meeting. She confirmed the minutes are not posted online. When asked, Lenkowicz provided the minutes of Amsterdam’s June 16 Common Council meeting within a matter of minutes. She said minutes of meetings are provided at no charge. The  minutes are similar to a separate document listing formal resolutions and vote tallies as acted on by the council, which is posted on the website, but they also include notes on public comments and presentations at the meeting.

“They can just request to see them,” Lenkowicz said of public access to the meeting minutes.

But Wolf and the open government group argued local governments should be proactive in providing public access to basic government information, saying governments should post meeting minutes online as soon as possible.

The report’s findings come during a possible inflection point for public meetings. While the public meetings law encourages public bodies to live-stream meetings, many governments and school districts had not been doing so. But the pandemic, and the inability to meet for in-person public meetings, forced governments to live-stream meetings under an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The group’s report found that 85 percent of local governments reviewed for the report live-streamed board meetings. But Wolf went further to argue local governments should continue live-streaming meetings after meetings start to return to their old form. Wolf said that in many ways public engagement has soared thanks to the virtual meetings, noting that meetings in large cities have often tallied virtual participants in the thousands while smaller governments are getting hundreds of views on public meetings – far more people than regularly attend in-person public meetings. Hundreds of viewers logged into Niskayuna school board meetings this spring as they circled in on a final budget proposal.

“I hope that continues even when we get back to in-person meetings, live-streatming meetings is a great way to inform the public,” Wolf said. “The public is clearly interested.”

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