Email is a great way to communicate, but not for a legislative body to deliberate. The Schenectady City Council is using it to shape decisions about how to allocate this year’s Community Development Block Grant, and that’s a problem.
The nonprofit organizations seeking CDBG money need to know what the council is thinking so they can make their cases accordingly. They and the public need to hear the debate and see how decisions are made in order to have confidence in the process. This isn’t possible if ideas and recommendations that lead to those decisions are kept private.
The block grant, which comes through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is, at $3.3 million, one of the city’s bigger pots of discretionary money. And the demand for it far exceeds the supply. So each year, City Council members must make tough decisions about which agencies to fund and how much, whether to stick with the same old agencies or help new ones, whether or not to make agency performance a factor. They must also decide how much to provide for the nonprofits and how much for government salaries and purposes such as street paving, public safety and economic development, which have been getting roughly half the CDBG money in recent years.
When the tentative budget was unveiled in early April, it was mostly status quo. At the time, at least four council members — Leesa Perazzo, Marion Porterfield, Carl Erikson and President Margaret King — expressed an interest in making changes.
But when the topic of CDBG came up for discussion at last Monday’s meeting, Perazzo called for a closed-door meeting. This would have violated the Open Meetings Law. So, instead, King suggested council members should email her their ideas, and Perazzo and Erikson both said they would. This also seems a violation of the Open Meetings Law, members of a legislative body discussing a public issue but not in public.
Failure to release the emails may also be a violation of the Freedom of Information Law, though this is not clear. According to Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, a major consideration is whether they just contain opinions, advice or recommendations, or statistical/factual information as well.
Illegal or not, private emails mean that at the final public hearing on the CDBG budget tonight, nonprofit agencies and the public won’t know what the various council members have recommended or are thinking, making surprises more likely and counterarguments more difficult.
Then, on May 12, just two weeks from now, the council will adopt the budget.
Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore has filed a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request for the emails. The council has 20 business days to respond, well beyond May 12. But the council needn’t wait. It should release the emails and discuss their contents today.