Listing topics puts everyone on the same page

 

Posting an agenda is a matter of common sense and common courtesy.

We wrote those words on this page in 1990. Nearly a quarter of a century later, they are still true.

In 1990, Bruce Moses, a Knox resident, had told the town board, “What people are scared of is if they don’t know when or where decisions are being made. I’d appreciate some kind of agenda.” He was concerned about a potential change in the subdivision regulations.

The supervisor responded then by suggesting that Moses, and other interested residents, attend the planning board meetings.

Moses and a group of citizens did just that. At the next planning board meeting, in March 1990, they waited to speak about a possible amendment to the subdivision regulations. The number had dwindled by more than half as the evening wore on.

“I’ve been out in the field since 6:30 this morning,” Moses told the planning board. “You could have announced first that you didn’t plan to get to this for hours.”

An agenda would have helped with that problem, too.

This year, in January, two Knox residents asked the town board for a schedule to be made available before the meetings so people could anticipate whether or when they might address the board.

One of them, Vasilios Lefkaditis, told us last week, “If there’s something that interests you or affects you, your land, or affects your taxes, and you knew ahead of time, you could make arrangements.”

He has had business before Knox boards in recent months as he acquired property in the hamlet where a business district is being considered.

But even residents without an issue before the boards are better served if they know what is to be discussed and voted on at a meeting.

Twenty-four years ago, we advised that Knox post town board agendas. We said that the schedule needn’t be elaborate — just a hand-written list posted at the town hall would allow residents to know what to expect and when, and people stopping by later could see what topics had been discussed.

Communication has undergone a sea change in the decades since we wrote those words. Back then, there was no Internet. Today, a town’s bulletin board is its website.

There is no legal requirement for an elected body like a town board or planning board or school board to post an agenda. The state’s Open Meetings Law requires only that meeting times and places be published so the public can attend.

But posting an agenda ahead — online where everyone can easily see it as well as at the town hall for those without computers — makes for good government. An informed citizenry helps to move a community forward.

The state’s law does require a public body to make available before or at a meeting records or documents scheduled to be discussed. It also requires an agency with a website and high-speed Internet to post those records online before the meeting. Both provisions are to be made “to the extent practicable as determined by the agency” and do not require money to be spent.

We always appreciate the detailed agenda and online packet of materials posted before every Guilderland School Board meeting, which allows residents a rich experience as they follow the board’s discussion. It also spurs informed comments.

Knox’s longtime supervisor, Michael Hammond, told us he makes up a schedule of business, available with the town clerk, at least the day before a meeting. He said much of what appears on the schedule often happens close to the date of a meeting and so cannot be reported very far ahead.

The solution to that is simple: With the ease of the Internet, Hammond could post an agenda in advance on the town’s website and then add any last-minute items as they arise.

From month to month, much in the schedule would remain the same. The town board meetings, for example, usually start with the minutes from the last meeting being voted on. This is typically followed by the board approving expenditures, hearing announcements, taking up old business and voting on action items, as well as introducing new business, and hearing public comment.

Once a form is set up, it would be a simple matter to add and subtract the items for any particular meeting.

Perhaps Hammond’s objections are more philosophical. He does not use the term “agenda” to describe the schedule of topics for town board meetings; he calls it the supervisor’s schedule. He told us that one person doesn’t set the agenda — the council would have to vote on one.

The other Hilltowns hold meetings separate from the board’s monthly session where all the board members can participate in shaping what will happen at the monthly meeting.

The key here is those meetings must be open to the public and legally posted so citizens can attend.

“Agenda Meetings” or “work sessions” are often terms used by boards that want to meet without the public present. The state’s Open Meetings Law does not contain any reference to work sessions, as pointed out in the manual for town supervisors and boards written by the Association of Towns of the State of New York. The law defines only the term “meeting.”

The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has agreed with lower courts that the definition of “meeting” is broad enough to include such work and agenda sessions. Even if a vote is not taken, the important elements of a meeting are the convening of a majority of the members of a public body and the discussion of public business.

We like the word “agenda.” It comes from the Latin for “to set in motion” or “to drive on.” And that is what an agenda does. It allows everyone — board members and onlookers alike — to be quite literally on the same page.

The same Association of Towns’ manual advises supervisors and board members, “Be prepared....Have an agenda made out ahead of time. Do not include anything on the agenda for which all the facts and the law have not been obtained in advance. These are the two basic ingredients in any decision.”

The manual also notes that every town board may adopt its own rules of procedure and stresses, “These rules should be known to the public.”

While all of the towns we cover have websites, only some of them post agendas. And even fewer post rules of procedure, which could help the public navigate meetings held by their elected representatives.

So Knox is not alone. We urge all of our towns to take heed: Posting procedures and agendas for any town meetings — town board, zoning board, and planning board among them — would benefit citizens and is easy to accomplish in this age of the Internet. Earlier this month, for example, we attended a planning board meeting where even some of the board members were surprised to learn that an important issue was no longer scheduled for discussion.

We cover some boards that have streamlined their agendas, creating a portion for routine, noncontroversial topics as a consent agenda, which can be passed quickly as a whole, freeing up time for more discussion on difficult topics.

Knox, for decades, with Hammond at the helm, has taken a more thorough, item-by-item approach, which has served the town well over the years. Residents know that, once a month, they can come to a meeting and hear an open exchange of ideas on matters important to their town.

We’ve long admired the back-and-forth at Knox Town Board meetings, not just on the dais but also between board members and residents. The role that citizens have played in their government along with leaders who are willing to listen and act have been good for the town.

But a quarter-century is too long to wait for common sense and common courtesy to prevail. The Knox Town Board can call its schedule whatever it wants, but it should see that a list of topics is posted on the town’s website before every board meeting. That is the best way “to drive on” to the future.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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