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Village trustees' informal confab might have broken law

An Amityville Village Council meeting at Amityville Village

An Amityville Village Council meeting at Amityville Village Hall. (June 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

An informal meeting of four Amityville trustees this month likely violated the state's open meetings law and could cause political fallout down the road, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government said.

The June 3 meeting, held at village hall with department heads to discuss matters including preparations for opening the municipal beach damaged during superstorm Sandy, was not publicly announced, and trustees failed to invite one of the five board members, Kevin Smith.

Mayor James Wandell, in an interview last week, described the meeting as informational, said no votes were taken and that Smith had not been deliberately excluded. "He may not have gotten the memo . . . We're a new board. I will take responsibility on that."

But Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said there could still be consequences. "Notice of time and place must be given," he said. "Anybody has the right to attend, unless there's basis for conducting an executive session." And, he said, "a valid meeting cannot be held unless reasonable notice is given to all the [board] members."

Open meeting rules kick in anytime a majority of the board gathers to discuss village business, Freeman said.

A judge could nullify the resolutions made at a meeting where those rules aren't followed, he said, and even nullify resolutions made later as a result of discussions at the meeting. A judge could also order the board to attend training by the Committee on Open Government.

Smith -- whose vote against the 2014 budget this spring was a source of friction with the Amityville First bloc of Wandell and trustees Jessica Bernius and Nick LaLota -- said he learned about the meeting afterward from fellow trustee Dennis Siry.

Smith said he has asked to be included in future meetings. "Hopefully this doesn't happen again and we can just keep things running."

The Wandell administration has taken steps intended to increase public participation and scrutiny of village government. At board meetings, trustees now vote item by item instead of approving the entire agenda at once, a change meant to invite more public comment. A public budget planning meeting was held this spring.

Trustees have also asked staff to post financial documents on the village website along with meeting agendas and minutes. As of last week, the most recent minutes available were from April 8; they have since been updated. Two abstracts totaling recent village purchases have also been posted. Wandell has asked that abstracts be posted regularly. "Our goal is to be as transparent as possible," he said.



Excerpts from the state open meetings law:


It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.

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


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