Montgomery County

Town of Amsterdam Planning Board gets failing grade on Open Meetings Law

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TOWN OF AMSTERDAM — A report from the New York Coalition for Open Government reviewing compliance by town planning boards across the state with Open Meetings Law document posting requirements gave the town of Amsterdam Planning Board a failing grade.

The report examined whether 20 town planning boards statewide posted meeting documents online as required by state Open Meetings Law. The New York Coalition for Open Government, reviewed the websites of at least two towns from each region of the state.

The report found that 15 of the reviewed town planning boards, including the town of Amsterdam Planning Board, failed to post documents for the applications up for board review online with their meeting agendas. Boards were given either a passing or failing grade based on whether documents were posted online.

The other locally reviewed town planning boards in Rotterdam and Colonie were each given passing grades for posting the documents online with their meeting agendas. Only five of the reviewed boards statewide received passing grades.

State Open Meetings Law requires public bodies that have regularly updated websites to post meeting documents online before a meeting occurs as best as “practicable.”

Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, during a press conference presenting the report Wednesday acknowledged that the weak language of the law provides a “loophole” for local boards.

“But, if you have a regularly updated website, there should be no practicable reason as to why you can’t scan and post documents online,” Wolf said. “If there are significant projects going on in your neighborhood, you should have an ability, an easy way, to find out what’s being proposed, what’s being voted on.”

The town of Amsterdam Planning Board posts meeting agendas on the town website before each monthly meeting on the “Town News” page. The agendas include a brief description of each application the board will review during the meeting with the name of the applicant, location and requested action.

However, the agendas do not outline the full scope of the project, including the acreage of the involved parcel, the size and layout of the proposed project, screening measures or operational details. That information is included in the documents submitted to the Planning Board as part of the application, which are not posted online. The documents are on file and available to be viewed by the public at the Town Office Building ahead of meetings.

“Planning boards are very important as far as the work that they do. They vote on significant issues that affect communities,” Wolf said. “So, it’s really important that they post information online for people to see what’s happening at a planning board meeting.”

Calls to town Supervisor Thomas DiMezza seeking comment on the report from the New York Coalition for Open Government were not immediately returned before press time.

With 75% of the reviewed boards statewide failing to post meeting documents online as required by Open Meetings Law, Wolf argued the state must amend the law to remove lax language and provide some level of enforcement.

The state Assembly passed legislation on May 4 requiring unequivocally that meeting documents be posted online at least 24 hours before a meeting occurs. The legislation is now headed to the Senate.

When a violation of Open Meetings Law occurs, there are currently no entities in the state responsible for enforcement. The only recourse that can be taken is for a citizen to file a private lawsuit against the responsible body on their own time and expense.

Nearby Massachusetts, Wolf noted, allows individuals to file complaints with the attorney general regarding any violations of Open Meetings Law. The chief law officer in that state has the authority to investigate those complaints and issue fines against local governments for failure to comply with the law.

“We hope in the future to put more teeth into the Open Meetings Law by strengthening the enforcement powers,” Wolf said.

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