A new report by the New York State Coalition on Open Government is calling for more enforcement of transparency laws after a recent study found concerns regarding how county Board of Election offices conduct business.
“The daily business and statutory duties of election boards are being handled behind closed doors while the public and news media are kept in the dark,” the report states. “Compliance with the Freedom of Information Law and Open Meetings Law is minimal.”
The report released Tuesday by the coalition, which advocates for governmental transparency, looked at 19 Boards of Elections, including Schenectady and Albany counties, determined whether boards complied with Open Meetings Law requirements.
“A board of elections [state and county] is both a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law and an agency subject to the Freedom of Information Law,” said Kristin O’Neill, the assistant director for the Committee on Open Government.
The report asked four main questions:
- Do the commissioners hold meetings and if so, how often?
- Is the public notified about the meetings?
- Are meeting agendas and documents posted online?
- Are minutes kept and are they posted online?
Schenectady County fared well in the report, although some concerns remain, said Coalition President Paul Wolf.
“The question I have is besides the annual meeting, how do the commissioners conduct business as far as hiring, contracts, budget issues, conducting hearings, etc.?” he said in an email.
The county holds an annual meeting, which is posted on the election office’s website and an agenda is provided, according to the report. Minutes of meetings are kept but are not placed on the website.
The Schenectady County Board of Election commissioners could not be reached for further comment.
Neighboring Albany County responded by phone about its meetings, indicating meetings are held regularly, but not announced to the public and no meeting agendas are posted online, according to the report. Meeting minutes are kept but not posted either.
While Albany officials answered questions via phone, the county then failed to respond to either of the two FOIL requests made to gather meeting minutes, according to the report. Albany was one of six counties that did not acknowledge the information request or respond in any way to the request.
“The Albany County Board of Elections is a transparent organization that works closely with elected officials and community groups to provide accurate and timely information,” said Rachel Bledi, the Republican commissioner for the Albany County Board of Elections in an email Tuesday afternoon.
Bledi said she had not received a copy of the coalition’s report. She said she recalls speaking to someone in regards to the report and likely assumed the request for information had been satisfied.
“Those FOIL requests were sent at the height of the election season so I will have to track them down,” she said. “I would be interested to know what aspect of elections they feel the general public is excluded from.”
She said she meets regularly with her counterpart, Democratic Commissioner Kathleen Donovan to “discuss internal administrative matters as they relate to the functions of our office and the staff.”
The board invites relevant parties to proceedings regarding petitions and absentee ballot canvassing and will often post notices on the county website. The board also mails letters to parties involved with the matters, Bledi said.
“Public notices of meetings would be more relevant in matters pertaining to poll site selections and redistricting,” she said. “Poll site selections are often made in conjunction with elected officials representing the affected area and feedback from voters. This year is a redistricting year and we plan on posting public and legal notices regarding election district and poll site changes.”
Overall many of the counties, 65%, did not respond to the four questions. Ten of the 19 counties didn’t respond to the initial information request, 73% of them didn’t acknowledge the original information request in the five business day timeline required under the law.
Wolf said the lack of transparency only further proves the need for consequences for those that don’t comply with the law.
“There will be no consequences, there will be no penalties, there will be no punishment,” Wolf said at a press conference Tuesday morning about the report’s findings. “All we can do is try to embarrass people to try to comply with the law and frankly we’re getting a little tired of several years issuing report after report of non-compliance with the law. The time really has come to create an entity with enforcement powers.”
The report recommends the following:
- An entity be formed to enforce violations against those that don’t follow the law
Both nearby Connecticut and Massachusetts have measures in place for non-compliance. Connecticut has the Freedom of Information Commission, which has the power to render decisions and penalties for violations, according to the report. People in Massachusetts can contact the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate violations.
- The state Board of Election should provide training on compliance with the law
The state Board of Elections did not respond regarding two information requests for memos, letters or training materials they provided to county Board of Election offices related to compliance with Open Meetings or FOIL Law, according to the report.
- State law should be amended to make it clearer that election commissioners must conduct business through public meetings
Wolf said many Boards of Elections rarely hold meetings, opting to instead have the two commissioners sign off in writing instead of voting in a meeting on various matters. State law only requires the town commissioners agree for any action to be taken, according to the report.
- That Open Meetings Law be amended to require election commissioners to deliberate in public on election matters.
Election board deliberations are currently allowed under the law to occur privately because they are quasi-judicial. Any votes must take place in public though.
- The public should be allowed to comment at meetings.
- Meetings should be live-streamed.
Wolf said he plans to send the report on to the state Legislature and county election boards in the report. He said he will also be contacting the chairs of the election committees in the state assembly and senate to “encourage them to enact the legislation we’re recommending.”
Reporter Shenandoah Briere can be reached at 518-478-3320 or by email at [email protected]