This morning, we attempted to cover a meeting of the town’s code revision committee, made up of town officials, including planning department staff, town attorney staff and two town board members.
The committee deliberates on proposed changes to the town’s laws — a consequential and critically important function of our town government. The committee then presents its proposal to the town board for adoption. Yet, when a reporter was waiting for the meeting to start, he was informed by Town Attorney Erik Howard that the meeting was closed to the public and press.
In essence, Howard’s argument was this: The committee was actually more akin to a staff meeting, it did not make decisions and was more of a brainstorming session. Most importantly to his very polite request for our reporter to leave: the meeting was not required to be public.
Councilman Ken Rothwell, one of the town board liaisons to the code revision committee, told the reporter the meeting was open and he was welcome to attend. In addition, the meeting is also listed on the meetings calendar on the town’s website. Both of these suggest that the public and press are welcome to sit in on deliberations.
To be clear, the code revision committee meetings being closed to the public and press is perfectly legal, just as Howard said. The committee is not a “public body,” for purposes of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
But that doesn’t make it right for the meeting to be closed.
We don’t usually even try to cover code revision committee meetings, but today was special. We wanted to see if the committee would discuss any or all of the three zoning code amendments that were the subject of town board public hearings last week. This includes an amendment to allow drive-thru windows in a Wading River zoning district, an amendment to prohibit anaerobic digesters in an EPCAL zoning district, and the amendment that received the most buzz: restrictions to regulate the operation and placement of new firearm businesses in the town.
All these laws received substantial criticism during hearings. Almost every time we ask board members whether a heavily scrutinized law might be changed after a public hearing, they often say the same thing: It’s probably got to be looked over by the code revision committee.
Similarly controversial code changes — like the codification of the pattern book and proposed rental housing code revisions, and a proposal to require residential developers downtown to provide off-street parking just to name a few — have dropped off the radar, without further town board discussion. Town board members never actually say the law is off the table in public, but it never gets discussed in a public meeting or voted on by the board. It just goes away.
It is safe to assume that the code revision committee is where laws are born and where laws die. This committee is where the sausage gets made.
And they don’t want us, or you, listening in.
Not too long ago, the conversations now being held behind closed doors by the code revision committee — and, as we’ve been told many times, through email conversations and “one-on-one” interactions between town board members — were held in town board work sessions. Now, there are fewer and fewer topics on work session agendas every week, with shorter and shorter presentations, and barely any conversation between board members. It seems like things only get on the agenda after they’ve already been decided, and not much “work” is actually taking place.
Sometimes it feels like the supervisor is rushing to get through every topic of conversation as fast as humanly possible.
“We’ll discuss it further,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar often says during work sessions to end a topic of conversation. Yet, that’s exactly what work sessions are for.
The explanation given by Howard for the code revision committee being a closed meeting also presents a slippery slope for other meetings we thought were public.
If an advisory body of the town board is not required to be open to the public, and nothing in our local laws or state laws says it must be, that means any other advisory committee of the town can just close its doors to the press and the public at any time.
For an administration that boasts about its “transparency,” this town government does too much of its business behind closed doors. The people and the press deserve access to committees advising the town board and important discussions should be deliberated and decided at public meetings.
The town board should require meetings of advisory committees to be open to the public. And every advisory committee should be required to publish an agenda in advance of its meeting so the public can know what will be discussed.
The public deserves to be in the room where the sausage gets made. It may not be pretty, but the public has a right to know what goes into it, in order to fully understand what comes out.
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