Berne officials criticized by open-government watchdog

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

A screenshot of the Berne Town Board’s April 29 executive session.

BERNE — Berne officials were criticized in a report released this week by an open-government watchdog for not allowing public comment at all town board meetings, for improperly calling executive sessions, and for not posting meeting minutes online within the timeframe prescribed by state law.

Based in Erie County, the Coalition for Open Government is a not-for-profit organization founded by attorney Paul Wolf in 2018 that “through advocacy, education, and civic engagement … promotes open, transparent government and defends citizens’ right to access information from public institutions and the city, county, and state levels,” according to its mission statement.

The report, which was sent to the Berne Town Board and town clerk, as well as local media, calls on Berne officials to allow public comment at every meeting held by the town board, which currently accepts public comment only at every other regularly scheduled meeting. The report also asks that the town clerk post meeting minutes online within the two-week period allowed by New York’s Open Meetings Law, among other things.

“The residents of Berne,” the report concludes, “have been subjected to a dysfunctional government, which has resulted in investigations, censures, lawsuits, audits, and improper executive sessions, all while being kept in the dark in many ways by the Town Board and Town Clerk. The Town Board has additionally muted the public by not allowing the public to be heard at every Town Board meeting.”

The report asks that Berne officials call executive sessions using the appropriate justifications provided by the Open Meetings Law, which they’ve frequently failed to do; publicly post information for residents on how to file a Freedom of Information Law request (known as a FOIL), which is not currently available on the site; and create an archive of meeting agendas and documents.

Another report was released by the coalition this year, stating that 70 percent of 20 local governments that were reviewed had not posted meeting minutes online within two weeks.

Neither Supervisor Sean Lyons nor the town’s attorney, Javid Afzali, could immediately be reached for comment about the report.

“The public’s business should be conducted in public,” Wolf, who is currently president of the coalition, told The Enterprise this week. “The law provides limited circumstances where meetings can be conducted behind closed doors and where information does not have to be disclosed. 

“It is amazing,” Wolf went on, “that the law does not mandate that the public has a right to be heard at meetings or that meeting minutes do not have to be posted online. We are working to change that. The work elected officials do is important and they should want the public to see their work.”

Wolf said that his organization became aware of the lack of transparency in Berne as a result of ongoing coverage by The Enterprise, which is the only news agency that regularly covers government in the rural Hilltowns.

“The news media plays an extremely important role in bringing open government issues to light and pressure that brings about changes,” Wolf said. 

In August, The Enterprise highlighted a closed session that was called illegitimately by the Berne Town Board. The paper looked at all six executive sessions held by the town board between Jan. 1 — when the new GOP-backed board took control — and November. The story details how five of the six executive-session motions were made improperly.

The Enterprise most recently covered Berne Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin’s Dec. 9 motion to allow public comment at every regularly scheduled town board hearing, which would have reversed a motion made and unanimously accepted at the board’s Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting that changed the structure of regular meetings to include public comment only every other month. 

The motion was defeated by a vote of 3 to 2, with Conklin, a Conservative, and Democrat Joel Willsey voting in favor, and Independent Mathew Harris and Republicans Sean Lyons and Dennis Palow voting against it. Conklin, Harris, Lyons, and Palow — all backed by the GOP — routinely vote as a bloc.

Conklin said at the time that she was a “bit frustrated” when the motion failed, adding that “this could be a new start where town officials could have their own office hours, so residents can sit and talk with us one on one. We don’t know what people want and don’t want for the town, unless we hear from them.”

 

The coalition

Wolf said he founded the Coalition for Open Government after witnessing lapses in transparency among governments in the Buffalo area, and initially formed the group as the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government before expanding statewide at the beginning of this year. 

“A Buffalo News reporter wrote a great article making people aware of my first meeting and 30 people showed up,” Wolf said of the organization’s genesis. “Since that first meeting, a core group of 10 people meets monthly and assists with the reports we have released over the years.”

This year, the coalition filed a lawsuit against Niagara County, which had refused to make financial disclosure reports produced prior to this year public, and a State Supreme Court Justice ruled in favor of the coalition in September. 

“New York’s open-government laws are very weak,” Wolf said. “There is no official or agency that has the power to enforce New York’s Open Meetings Law or Freedom of Information Law. In other states, a citizen can file a complaint with the state attorney general who has the power to sue and fine elected officials who violate the law. 

“In New York,” Wolf went on, “individual citizens have to retain an attorney to enforce the law. The laws won’t change unless the public demands and advocates for changes, which is the role our organization plays.”

Wolf also credits the coalition for prompting two state legislators to introduce legislation this year requiring that local governments livestream meetings, which became a point of concern during the COVID-19 shutdowns, and post recordings of those meetings online. That legislation has yet to reach the floor of either chamber.

More Hilltowns News

  • The Albany Water Board, steward of the Basic Creek dam in Westerlo, has received $100,000 from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to come up with a design for a rehabilitation project for the high-hazard dam, which is in substandard condition.

  • A digital equity map, put together by a coalition of organizations including the New York State Education Department and the New York State Library, shows that approximately 15 percent of Hilltown households don’t have internet access, whether because they don’t have an internet subscription or because they don’t have internet-capable devices.

  • The Berne Town Board held a public hearing on a new animal-control law this week and received mostly minor suggestions for alteration from a public that seemed largely pleased with the proposed regulations. 

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