The town board during the Jan. 26 work session discussion with the developer of Landmark at Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

We were taken by surprise when an email from the deputy supervisor arrived at 4:58 p.m. Tuesday with the agenda for Wednesday morning’s work session.

Riverhead Town Board work sessions are customarily held on Thursday mornings.

No notice was given for a change in the meeting date. No notice was posted on the town’s website, though when we checked on Tuesday evening, the website calendar did show the work session on Wednesday.

We’ve since learned that the supervisor’s office sent an email to town staff on Jan. 18 notifying them of the change in date for this week’s work session.

But the press and the public didn’t have to be notified, according to the deputy supervisor, because work sessions are not meetings set by resolution. Say what?

That rationale was reported to us by the town clerk yesterday, after we asked her why there had been no notice of the changed date. The clerk said after our inquiry, she called the deputy supervisor to ask, because the supervisor’s office handles town board meeting notices.

We too called the deputy supervisor yesterday afternoon, but she wasn’t available and apparently unable to return the call.

The idea that meeting notices are not required for meetings that aren’t set by resolution of the town board is farcical.

There is absolutely no question that the “work session” meetings of the town board are meetings that are subject to the New York State Open Meetings Law.

The town board is a “public body” as defined by that law. And every meeting of a public body, which must be open to the general public, is subject to the public notice requirements of the Open Meetings Law.

Section 104 (“Public Notice”) of the Open Meetings Law, states:

Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given or electronically transmitted to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before such meeting.

Neither of those two things happened for yesterday’s meeting.

That section of the law has other requirements for notice, including informing the public of the web address if the meeting is going to be live-streamed. It also requires that the notice be “conspicuously posted” on the public body’s website.

We’re not sure who’s giving the supervisor’s office legal advice on this matter, but we suspect it’s not the town attorney, since the stuff about meetings scheduled by resolution is so far off base.

When a public body such as the town board adopts a resolution scheduling its formal meetings for the year — as the Riverhead Town Board does for its twice-monthly regular meetings — the public body does not have to give separate notice of the individual meetings. The resolution by itself is sufficient. But it must give notice of date/time changes and special meetings, in compliance with Section 104.

When meetings are not set for the year by resolution, the public body must give notice for each of them individually. Since the town board doesn’t adopt a resolution setting dates and times for work sessions, it should actually give notice for each of them separately. That’s the exact opposite of the supervisor’s rationale that no notice is required at all because there was no resolution scheduling them.

The statute really is very clear.

So, why does this matter?

Correct and adequate notice to the press and public is step number one. Without it, meetings cannot be truly “open” to the public as the law requires — and the law correctly recognizes that.

We hope that, going forward, the supervisor’s office recognizes that as well.

The work session agenda was not insubstantial. It included discussion of two major development projects downtown and a long list of resolutions dealing with significant projects such as Island Water Park and a five-story apartment building next to Riverhead Free Library.

As a practical matter, the Open Meetings Law has no teeth. There’s no agency charged with enforcing its provisions. This means it is up to the people to ensure their government abides by the law. It’s up to the people to elect officials who keep government proceedings open and transparent — as the law requires. And it’s up to the people to voice their disapproval when officials blatantly ignore the law that requires open and transparent government.

It’s up to all of us to make sure open government doesn’t die a death by a thousand cuts.

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