Democratic members of the Huntington Town Board are calling on Republican Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci to make early stage budget meetings open to the public, citing his campaign commitment to transparency.
The request comes after board members Mark Cuthbertson and Joan Cergol said they were invited by Lupinacci to take part in budget meetings, but the invitation was then withdrawn over concerns about violating New York’s Open Meetings Law.
Lupinacci, citing state law, countered by saying that during early department head meetings confidential matters such as possible staff reductions are on the agenda and should not be discussed in public.
"We're not trying to veil anything here," Lupinacci said. "I wouldn't want to create false rumor when looking at preliminary taxing figures."
Cuthbertson said the administration raised concerns that attendance by three or more board members would violate the state's open meetings law.
Cergol said after being disinvited to the department head meetings she gave a memo to Lupinacci requesting the meetings be open to the public. Soon after, she spoke to Town Attorney Nick Ciapetta, who expressed his concerns, and later Lupinacci, who echoed similar concerns about privacy, Cergol said. Neither replied to her request the open the meetings, she said.
Lupinacci said state law mandates that the sole responsibility to present a budget to the Town Board and the Town Clerk by Sept. 30 goes to the supervisor, not the town board, and that it would be "improper" for them to participate.
"Show me where the law prohibits town board participation if so desired," Cergol said. "Nobody is looking to interfere with the supervisor attending to his budgetary responsibilities."
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Goverment, said the open meetings law is regularly misinterpreted and is actually permissive. He said "personnel" discussions is not a viable reason to close a meeting.
"Further, when the issue involves the budget, how it relates to policy, i.e., the manner in which public monies will or should be allocated in relation to the governmental functions carried out by the town," meetings should be public.
Cuthbertson said he was disappointed in Lupinacci's decision because he extended the invitation in the first place.
"Announcing budget meetings should not be a way of him getting a legal education on the open meetings law," Cuthbertson said.
A public hearing on Huntington's preliminary budget is scheduled for Nov. 8 at 2 p.m. at Town Hall.