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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Oyster Bay ordered back to school to learn openness

Oyster Bay Town Hall is shown in this

Oyster Bay Town Hall is shown in this photo taken on Sunday, March 27, 2016. Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

The Oyster Bay Town Board has earned the distinction of being the first municipal government in the 40-year history of New York State’s Committee on Open Government to be ordered by a state judge to report to the agency for schooling on how to comply with the state’s open meetings law.

But the town is hardly the only Long Island municipality needing a refresher course on openness.

Almost two-thirds of 196 municipalities and agencies audited by the Press Club of Long Island last year failed to respond to requests for public information before deadlines set by state law. On a grading scale of A to F, according to the audit, Long Island’s counties, towns, villages and government agencies together averaged only a C.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, said the region seems to have an issue. “Whether it is from ignorance, or from unwillingness, we do hear a lot about issues of openness from Long Island,” he said Friday.

State law allows judges to order training. Thus far, Freeman said, that’s only happened three times.

The first two were school districts, he said.

With Justice Jeffrey Brown’s June 2 order, which cited two instances of the town board’s failing to publish information about resolutions in advance, Oyster Bay became the third.

Joseph Saladino, the town’s appointed Republican supervisor who is running for a full term on a platform of openness and transparency, said Oyster Bay would appeal Brown’s decision. Joseph Nocella, the town attorney, said the order was flawed, in part, because advance material had been posted on one resolution.

Still, Saladino said, officials will go ahead and receive training on complying with provisions of the state’s open meetings law. He said the town had intended to do so before Robert Ripp, a retired police officer and frequent critic of town government, filed the complaint that led to Brown’s ruling.

Officials in the villages of Kings Point and Munsey Park may want to consider doing the same thing.

Last month, Newsday reported about a Kings Point board of trustees meeting that Freeman said failed to comply with the law.

Instead of calling the meeting to order and, after an explanation to the public, voting to go into executive session — which is what’s supposed to happen — the board instead delayed a scheduled public meeting for a half-hour as trustees met in private.

Afterward, the board convened in public for 10 minutes, and unanimously passed a number of items.

Earlier this month in Munsey Park, village officials defended a board vote in May to create a village administrator position, and to put the mayor’s brother-in-law — who would later decline the post — into the job. The position was created and filled via resolutions that were neither listed in the meeting agenda nor posted on the village website.

Village residents and some former village officials complained.

During a meeting earlier this month, Mayor Frank J. DeMento and the board said they stood by their decision.

Trustee Lawrence Ceriello took the interesting tack of accusing residents who spoke to the news media of “impugning motives on the village.” He read aloud some comments included in news reports, and interrogated some residents as to why they decided to speak to reporters.

“I don’t think you think you did anything bad. But you did,” he said, according to a Newsday report. “That was published in the paper . . . do you realize what you are doing to the village?”

Actually, he had that question backward:

Does the village — with its lack of transparency in creating and filling a position, when officials so easily could have advertised the post and openly solicited candidates — realize what it’s doing to residents?

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