Nassau’s financial control board backed away from holding a conference call Wednesday about changes to the county budget — opting instead for at least three separate calls to its members — after Newsday questioned the legality of the planned call.
Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, said Tuesday the board was considering imposing millions of dollars in spending cuts to the county’s 2018 budget because it disagreed with $60 million in proposals made by the Republican controlled majority on the county legislature to raise revenue and reduce expenses.
NIFA officials also said the board would hold a conference call Wednesday with its seven members to discuss the budget, which covers Nassau’s 1.4 million residents.
New York’s open meetings law requires any discussion by a quorum of a public agency to be heard and seen in public — which is not possible on a conference call. For NIFA, a quorum, or majority, would be four members.
If the subject of the discussion can be exempt by law from the public — such as personnel issues or contract negotiations — the agency must vote to close its doors and explain why.
When Newsday inquired how a conference call could be legal, NIFA spokesman David Chauvin said in a statement, “It is a briefing on the budget and pre-decisional. No votes or official actions will be taken.”
The open meetings law does not require votes be taken for a discussions to be public.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said Wednesday: “If a majority gets together to conduct public business, even if there is no intent to take action, the the open meetings law applies. . . . If a majority get together via a telephone conference call, that would constitute a meeting.”
Freeman said he told NIFA’s counsel the same thing earlier in the day. Freeman said he told the counsel there was no legal requirement that discussions be public if there is no quorum.
Subsequently, Chauvin sent this statement: “There will not be a quorum of the Directors at any point this evening. Each briefing will have three or fewer Directors.”
Frank Moroney, a spokesman for the Republican legislative majority, said, “Every meeting is an open meeting, as long as you have a majority. A meeting is a meeting. If they have to do a round-robin of phone messages to evade public scrutiny, maybe they should call a meeting.”
NIFA is expected to hold a public session Dec. 7.