EDITORIAL: Caucus rule limits public access to government

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Local governments are conducting our business in secret.

No citizens are in attendance. No reporters are sitting in the meetings writing down what they say. They don’t have to post their agendas or meeting materials in advance. They don’t have to even have to say when they’re meeting.

And with limited exceptions, it’s all perfectly legal under a flawed state Open Meetings law that allows government officials to discuss public business if they’re operating as a caucus of a political body.

The idea of the exemption is that political parties should be allowed to discuss its policy positions free of public scrutiny before making those positions public. But the reality is that a handful of people representing one political party often dominates a local government board.

Board members are relieved of the obligation to state their objections in public, to raise questions about the policies discussed, or to answer to a public audience. That allows virtually the entire the board to debate issues in secret and then present a common front when they convene in public as an official government body.

The caucus exemption is basically a scam that state lawmakers created for local government officials to allow them to skirt the state Open Meetings Law. It’s time for state lawmakers to reverse decades of anti-citizen decisions and eliminate or significantly close this loophole.

How prevalent is the practice? The New York Coalition for Open Government on Thursday released a report on caucus meetings in which it sought information from individual counties about their practices.

The group was able to get information from 27 of the state’s 62 counties. Of those, 23 (85%) admitted they held private caucus meetings in which the public and the media are excluded. Only four of the 27 (15%) said they don’t. It’s very likely this is reflective of the rest of the counties, since the law allows political parties to do this.

The Coalition is calling for lawmakers to address the issue by eliminating caucus meetings at the local level and/or amending the Open Meetings Law so that any gathering of at least two-thirds of a public body is subject to the Open Meetings Law when they’re discussing public business. In the absence of a change in state law, the Coalition is encouraging local governments to voluntarily refrain from holding caucus meetings.

The last one is unlikely to happen to a large degree, and therefore be less universally effective. The 2/3 rule is reasonable, but the public would still have to trust that the board is actually limiting its closed-door meetings to a strict and as yet undefined definition of caucus business.

State lawmakers could entirely eliminate the exemption for local governments because it wouldn’t apply to state caucuses. So that may be the option that has the best chance of passage.

Regardless, something has to change.

As long as the caucus exemption remains in place, the citizens will remain in the dark about government business and remain limited in their ability to influence government decisions that affect their lives.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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