Critics of the state Senate and Assembly allege that legislative leaders violated the Open Meetings Law and cultivated an atmosphere of secrecy to pass an on-time budget.
Echoing chants of hundreds of protesters in the Capitol on Wednesday, Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, said the building is supposed to be the people’s house and they should have access to it. Instead, protesters and lobbyists had to deal with a clamped-down Capitol that had hallways blocked off, limited access to viewing galleries and no means of attending certain committee meetings.
Bartoletti was particularly miffed about the access to the Senate and Assembly galleries Wednesday during the day and late into the night, which she said violated the “spirit” of the Open Meetings Law. In the Assembly that meant the upstairs viewing galleries were locked until late in the night when about 100 people were let in. In the Senate, only one gallery was open, which was mostly filled by reporters, lobbyists and a handful of protesters. Officials claimed a broken metal detector forced them to shut the second gallery.
But Bartoletti gave credit to the Assembly for providing a separate viewing area in the first floor of the Legislative Office Building, where people could view the passage of the budget. She suggested that the Senate’s unwillingness to compromise with protesters stemmed from a desire to keep the budget process moving steadily along, so lawmakers could contrast themselves with the dysfunction that has marked the Senate in recent years.
According to Mark Hansen, a spokesman for the Senate Majority Office, the restrictions in the Capitol followed the recommendation of the state police for security reasons.
Denial of access
But Bartoletti said preemptively denying access to meetings and sessions is a violation of the Open Meetings Law. “If [protesters] were disruptive you could get rid of them,” she said.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, also said that locking doors of the chambers, as was done at points during the day, violated the state’s constitution. She said language had been added during the 1930s for the very purpose of ensuring that protesters would not be kept away.
Charlie Albanetti, communications director for Citizen Action of New York, added that Hansen’s explanation of the security protocols didn’t make sense. Albanetti, who was in the Capitol on Wednesday, contended that state police get their orders about the galleries from the sergeant-at-arms through the majority party of that chamber. He added that decisions about security in the rest of the Capitol are dictated by the Office of General Services.
As an organizer of the protests, Albanetti said he and others had talked with officials Tuesday about their planned presence and were told they would have normal access. When they arrived Wednesday, though, the Capitol was not using standard procedures. “We’re happy to comply with any rules, as long as they’re not restricting access,” Albanetti said.
The restricted access included a closed portion of hallway on the third floor, which made it impossible for people to witness the budget bills being addressed in the Senate Finance Committee meetings. One Senate sergeant-at-arms defended the denial of access to the meeting with, “We make the rules.”
Robert Freeman, executive director for the state Committee on Open Government, said the exclusion of the public represented a violation of the Open Meetings Law. He suggested the Senate could have easily complied with the law by simply allowing access to the first people arriving.
Regarding the closed finance meeting, Hansen noted it could be seen live on the Internet and added that some of the protesters had laptops. That explanation did not qualify under the Open Meetings Law, according to Bartoletti. She acknowledged that live streaming of events was good, but said it did not satisfy the right to be “present and able to observe.”
She added the Senate also had violated the Open Meetings Law earlier Wednesday when it moved a Banks Committee meeting from its announced time of 10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. without any public notice.
A spokesman for the committee chairman said Senate staffers were alerted about the change Tuesday night and they alerted members of the committee. He and Hansen did not respond to inquiries about alerting the press or the public to the time change.
Bartoletti argued the practice of announcing meeting changes at the last second or not at all has become more and more prevalent in the Senate. “They don’t follow any schedule but their own.”
On Thursday morning, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, sent out a press release touting the enactment of the “first ‘early’ state budget since 1983.”
But later in the day, Michael Whyland, press secretary for Silver, acknowledged that the Assembly actually had finished passing the budget on Thursday shortly after midnight, making it on-time, but not early.
The bills passed Thursday were back-dated on the public information website to show they were passed and delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday. But Whyland said that was the product of a computer glitch and not an attempt to falsely indicate an early budget.