The emails that Schenectady City Council members were planning to send each other regarding how they should spend a $3.3 million federal grant could be a violation of the Open Meetings Law, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government.
He also said portions of the emails should be made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Law.
The Daily Gazette submitted a request for the emails and was denied.
However, the problem was averted. Council President Margaret King said council members decided not to send each other emails after all.
“There are zero emails,” she said. “I’ve ended up having phone conversations with a couple of people.”
She plans to present everyone’s proposals to the council — in public — on Monday. That’s one week after the public hearing on the issue, at which speakers had to talk about the mayor’s original proposal because they had no idea what modifications the council was considering.
The council plans to vote at the next meeting, leaving very little time for the public to respond and try to persuade council members to fund their organization.
Councilman Vince Riggi, the only non-Democrat on the council, said the council should have discussed the matter publicly from the start. He castigated the Democratic council members for suggesting emails instead.
“They don’t want to say it publicly because they don’t have public courage,” he said. “If they want to put money into something else, don’t be afraid to say so. The public has a right to know.”
King said that discussion will happen Monday.
“I’ll say, ‘This is what I’m hearing, is everyone comfortable?’ ” she said, adding that she expected a discussion to ensue.
“That’s my plan,” she said.
She also said that she would have kept the emails within the scope of the law. Freeman said emails could be used to explain each member’s views, but that members could not respond to those emails to come to a consensus. The compromises and discussion leading to a consensus must happen at a public meeting, he said.
“That’s really the point” of the Open Meetings Law, he said, adding that it doesn’t matter if the council votes formally in public after already knowing the outcome of the vote.
“If it is, in essence, a consensus … they’ve already really voted, haven’t they?” he said.
King said she wouldn’t have let the emails go that far.
“It was never going to be decision-making,” she said.
Freeman also said that if emails had been sent, parts of them would have been public documents.
Each member’s recommendations — such as how much money should go to a particular need — could be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law, he said.
But their reasons why must be public, he added, describing a hypothetical email listing the value of a particular nonprofit and the good things it does.
“All of that is factual information,” he said. The city’s law department rejected the FOIL request on two grounds: first, no emails had been sent yet and secondly, every word in the emails would be private because they were “intra-agency” communications.