Local governments have come a long way in achieving transparency in public meetings, in large measure thanks to technological advances and the internet, but they’ve still got a long way to go.
It’s now pretty common for meeting videos to be posted online, with many meetings even streamed live on the web. But all meetings of policy- and decision-making boards should be video-recorded and live-streamed. Riverhead Town does this with its town board, planning board and zoning board meetings, as well as meetings of the Industrial Development Agency. Kudos to the town for making this happen.
The Riverhead school board, on the other hand, does not video its meetings. For years, Laurie Downs recorded the meetings and provided the recording to Cablevision for airing on its government access channel. When she stopped doing that several years back, the board didn’t give consideration to picking up the task. In the 21st century, meeting videos should be considered essential. The technology to record and host the videos is inexpensive. And taxpayers, who are often working multiple jobs and/or shuttling their kids around from one extracurricular activity to another, often can’t make it to board meetings.
Agendas for all board and committee meetings should be posted online at least 24 hours before the scheduled meeting. Otherwise, there’s no way for a concerned citizen — or a reporter — to know what a committee will be taking up without making phone calls and chasing people down. Take it from me, that’s no easy task. Committee chairman can send an email to the town board coordinator, who should be able to type up an agenda and post it to the town’s website. This isn’t too much to ask for the sake of transparency in government.
All documents to be discussed at a public meeting are required by law to be made available at the meeting to the press and public. The law exists because unless you can look at what they’re looking at as they discuss things, you can’t follow the discussion. This defeats the very purpose of the Open Meetings Law. Nevertheless, we reporters often have to badger various board members or their legal counsel to get the documents being discussed — or even the resolutions being voted on, as incredible as that seems.
In 2019, it seems to me that these materials should also be posted online, with the agenda, in advance of the meeting. Documents can readily be scanned and posted. Department heads and other people coming to meetings to discuss things with board members should be told that, except in cases of urgency, they won’t be put on the agenda until they submit their documents.
Certainly all resolutions should be posted online, with the agenda, in advance of the meeting. This is not the practice of the planning board, which doesn’t seem to post resolutions online until after they are signed. The Riverhead Industrial Development Agency likewise does not post resolutions online before their meetings. Again, state law requires all documents to be discussed at meetings to be available to the press and public at the time of the meeting; this certainly includes resolutions to be called for a vote. This advances the cultivation of an informed and engaged citizenry, which is in everyone’s best interests and is an objective I’m sure is shared by all members of all boards.
Minutes should be taken at all meetings — including committees — and these, too should be posted online, so citizens read at least a summary of their actions. I am a strong believer in verbatim minutes for bodies like the town board, which recently considered doing away with verbatim minutes. This would be a bad move, as minutes are often the only readily accessible historical record.
Minutes should be taken of the town board work sessions, too. This was done in the past (summary, not verbatim) but is no longer.
There’s an argument to be made, as the town supervisor recently did, that with video recording of meetings, verbatim minutes are unnecessary. I’m not convinced. For one thing, the town videos are not easy to navigate — there’s no button for skipping ahead or back 30 seconds, a function many video platforms provide. For another thing, who knows where these online videos will be in 20 or 50 or 100 years? I’m told the town gets copies of them on disk, and that’s good. But how will citizens access them? And what happens when technology changes? How many of us still have a VHS player hooked up to our TVs, for instance? Paper minutes, with PDFs posted online, ensure at least some permanence for posterity.
All meetings of boards and committees should be posted on the town’s website calendar at least one week prior to the date of the meeting. The post should include the date, time and place of the meeting. Since the point of the calendar is to let citizens know about upcoming meetings, not disclosing where they will be held defeats the purpose.
When moving a resolution for a vote, the movant should summarize, in plain English, what the resolution is about — explaining what it does and why. This is called stating the question (of the vote). Don’t just read the title of the resolution. It is often not very informative. If board members can’t extemporaneously, accurately summarize a resolution in a few sentences, then I question whether they should be voting on it, much less moving it.
Boards should limit the use of executive sessions. Just because they can discuss something in executive session doesn’t mean they must — or should. Board should operate under the presumption of openness, not secrecy.