The most interesting thing to happen during U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s Wednesday visit to Montgomery County may have been a violation of the state Open Meetings Law.
Schumer came to the county to meet with members of the new county Legislature. “There’s a new form of government here in Montgomery County,” he said. “I thought I should meet everyone.”
The idea, he said, was to get to know recent electees and hear from them what could be done in Washington to help the county.
He reportedly filled in eight of nine legislators and County Executive Matt Ossenfort on his recent efforts to improve the safety of rail shipments of crude oil through the county, and to secure federal dollars for flood prevention and flood gauges in area streams. Then a few of the legislators reportedly piped up with other ideas.
The problem was, the whole thing took place behind closed doors, which Robert Freeman, director of the state Committee on Open Government, said is an obvious violation of state law.
A spokeswoman with Schumer’s office informed reporters arriving at the Old County Courthouse for the meeting that they’d have to wait outside the conference room for the meeting to end.
Legislature Chairman Tom Quackenbush said the public didn’t miss much.
“Schumer talked most of the time,” he said. “He told us a lot of stories about back when he shared an apartment with a few other guys and what he’s doing in Washington now.”
After the stories, Quackenbush said, Schumer asked the legislators what he could do to help the county handle its main issues. While eight of nine legislators attended the meeting and technically discussed county business with Schumer, Quackenbush said they never intended to make any decisions.
“I bought a table for the Legislature at the Amsterdam Mohawks’ Hot Stove Dinner fundraiser,” he said. “Will that be a violation of the Open Meetings Law?”
According to Freeman, any time a quorum — a majority — of lawmakers meet regarding government business, the state’s Open Meetings Law requires the public be allowed to attend, even if those lawmakers intend only to have a discussion.
“They don’t have to intend to take action,” he said. “And the presence of an important person doesn’t exempt them from the law.”
Quackenbush said Wednesday’s violation isn’t indicative of any larger secrecy in the new county government.
“Our regular meetings are taped and posted online,” he said. “I didn’t even call this meeting. Schumer did, and he asked it be private.”
Schumer conducts scores of similar meetings across the state, said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman.
“It’s an important tool for understanding county priorities,” she said.
He usually conducts the meetings behind closed doors, which is his right under the law, she said. According to her, because Schumer is a federal lawmaker, the state-specific Open Meetings Law doesn’t apply.
The law does however apply to the County Legislature, Freeman said, though adding very little will likely be done about Wednesday’s violation. Should closed meetings become an ongoing problem in Montgomery County, he said, a judge could order the Legislature to go through Open Meetings Law training, taught by Freeman himself.
“Some people consider that a fate worse than death,” he said.
After the closed meeting, Schumer and the legislators told waiting journalists what was discussed. Aside from the usual requests for flood recovery and prevention aid, Economic Development Director Ken Rose asked for federal help with industrial development and Quackenbush volunteered Montgomery County as a test case for municipal consolidation.
“[Gov. Andrew Cuomo] talks about wanting to consolidate some of the state’s 10,500 governments,” he said. “Start with us. Send someone out to show us how. Make us the guinea pig.”