Gov. Paterson’s veto last week of a bill that would improve the state open meetings law was unfortunate, but his offer to work with the Legislature and Committee on Open Government on an acceptable compromise is encouraging. While the existing law is clear, and the Committee on Open Government fast and invariably right with its advisory opinions, the law has no teeth. That’s what is needed, and what the vetoed bill would have provided.
It would have done it in two ways. One — and the reason for Paterson’s veto — would have been by allowing judges to fine school boards, municipal councils and public bodies up to $500 for violating the open meetings law.
Paterson argued that it would be unfair to penalize taxpayers for the illegal acts of public officials, but $500 is not a lot of money. It is, however, enough to get taxpayers’ attention and embarrass the culprits. Some other states, such as Connecticut, go even further, allowing fines against each member of the offending body, with no reimbursement from public funds. We could support that, at least when the members knowingly and flagrantly violate the law, but Paterson and the Legislature probably would not.
In any case, the vetoed bill contained another provision that is arguably more important than the fine. It would have allowed judges to stay board actions done illegally behind closed doors and send issues back for consideration. At the very least, this would inconvenience the officials and make them do it all again — in public this time. But it is also possible that, with real public input and debate, theywould reach a different decision.
It’s true that it is hypocritical for the governor and Legislature to require sunshine for the deliberations and decisions of others, while exempting themselves. But partial sunshine is still better than none.