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Niskayuna to keep public comment in meeting minutes

Niskayuna to keep public comment in meeting minutes

NISKAYUNA — Niskayuna residents will always be able to voice concerns at meetings of the Town Board.

The board last week ensured residents' names and statements will remain part of the record.

Board members unanimously voted down a resolution that, if passed, would have permitted the town clerk to exclude names and commentary from the official minutes of the meeting.

Residents routinely voice concerns and problems during the privilege of the floor sessions that precede committee reports, the supervisor's report and resolution votes. At an October meeting, residents spoke for more than 90 minutes on a variety of topics.

Town legal counsel earlier this fall stated that, according to the Committee on Open Government, public commentary was not required for meeting minutes. Counsel advised the board to adopt a policy consistent with the advisory opinion issued by the committee.

Residents spoke against the idea before the vote. Denis Brennan, who is also the town's historian, was among the opposition.

"It is, in my opinion, unnecessary and simply not a good idea," Brennan said. "Privilege of the floor time represents a foundation that supposedly makes our republic, this thing of the people, distinct — citizen participation in affairs of government, reminiscent of the famous Norman Rockwell painting, a man standing among his peers voicing his opinion at a public meeting. That is who we claim to be."

Brennan also said he has developed respect for people willing to stand up and speak out at board meetings.

Resident Leslie Gold, a regular speaker, said such a measure would "rob history."

"The [meeting] videos are great, it's current technology," she said. "I've got a stack of VCR tapes and two VCRs, they won't work with my TVs and that's the way technology is going, it goes quickly. What we think is a great record might not be in as few as 10 years. There is something about the permanency of a written record."

Jon Lemelin was out of town on travel, but submitted comments that were read by Supervisor Yasmine Syed.

"It has been said that in a free society, transparency is government’s obligation to share information with its constituents," Lemelin said in his statement. "Transparency is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.

"While I understand the town attorney’s opinion that documenting 'privilege of the floor' testimony is not required by law, I believe that it is absolutely required to maintain transparency in our town government," Lamelin added. "And I believe that directing people to go watch a video if they want to see what happened at a town meeting is disingenuous, at best."

Lamelin also believed people would notice a change in the minutes procedure that omits public commentary.

"This motion will send a clear message to the town residents that you do not value their input," the statement read. "In fact, you will be telling the brave residents who chose to speak at town meetings that their comments are not even worth writing down. And any documents that they offer in support of their testimony will be thrown directly into the trash. Make no mistake, I believe this resolution will drastically reduce transparency in our town and seriously damage your credibility."

Board members first discussed a motion to table the issue, but later decided on a vote.

"It certainly does not have my support," said board member John Della Ratta. "It's unnecessary. I don't think it's a good idea."

Board member Bill McPartlon said he checked with Town Clerk Michele Martinelli and learned the current procedure of recording minutes — with all names and comments — was not a burden. Some comments, he said, are summarized.

"If it's not coming from the clerk, I don't see any need to change our procedure or policies regarding the minutes and the recording of those minutes," McPartlon said.

Syed said had also consulted with Martinelli. "There really is no need to change how we are going to be going to be recording those minutes," she said.

 

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