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Report: Many local governments are not allowing public comment during online sessions

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update during a news conference in Irondequoit. Credit: Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo/Mike Groll

ALBANY — At a time when New Yorkers are seeking information about COVID-19, two-thirds of local governments surveyed didn’t give residents a chance to ask questions or speak during online sessions, according to a report by a watchdog group released Tuesday.

“The fact that so many local governments waived addressing public comments is disturbing,” said the report by the nonpartisan New York Coalition for Open Government. The report stated public participation is especially crucial during the pandemic to “ensure positive and meaningful participation in important government proceedings during some of the most uncertain times in this country’s history.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive order issued March 20 temporarily suspended elements of the state Open Meetings Law to allow local county, town, city and village meetings to be held by video conference.

In a traditional local government meeting, the public can attend and there is often an opportunity to speak or at least contact their representatives before or after the meetings. 

The Coalition for Open Government found seven of 21 upstate county and city governments from Albany to Niagara Falls that were surveyed sought and allowed public comments during their April online meetings.

The state Open Meetings Law that requires most public discussions and actions to be made in public, but it doesn’t require the public get a chance to comment outside of less-frequent public hearings, which are usually confined to a specific proposal or act.

“Our Open Meetings Law is weak compared to a lot of states,” said Paul Wolf, president of the coalition. “We want to amend the Open Meetings Law to mandate that the public has to be heard during the meeting because, when given the option, 67 percent of local governments have just waived hearing from the public … even before COVID-19, it was difficult to get government to operate in an open and transparent way.”

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The New York Conference of Mayors said Tuesday it opposes mandating public comment periods.

In other areas, most of the 21 local governments surveyed in April fared better:

  •     Every local government complied with the law to livestream meetings.
  •     Eighteen also posted an audio or video recording of meetings online afterward. The law requires posting recordings of past meetings only to the extent that is boards consider practical.
  •     Nineteen posted the full meeting documents online. The law requires the records provided to elected board members also be available to the public, but only “to the extent practicable as determined by the agency.”

The mayors conference in a written statement didn’t comment on the lack of public input at every governing board meeting.

“This report supports our belief that city and village governments are doing a good job of complying with the intent and spirit of the Open Meetings Law, as well as the governor's temporary modifications to the law,” said Peter A. Baynes, executive director of the conference. “The vast majority of city and village governing bodies regularly provide for some form of public comment period at their meetings.”

There was no immediate comment from the state Association of Counties.

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