[Return to Home Page] [Subscriptions] [Newsstands] [Contact Us] [Archives]

Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 3, 2006


Illustration by Forest Byrd

Government records need to be organized and accessible

Mistakes are made when record-keeping is lax.

The planning board in Knox last month rescinded its approval of a subdivision. A neighbor had filed suit because the deed on that land had a restrictive covenant.

Some of the very same planning board members who had required the covenant on the land 14 years ago, in 1992, had forgotten about it.

We don’t fault those individuals. Fourteen years is a long time. We had covered the planning board meeting in 1992 where that initial subdivision was approved, but we couldn’t recall the details, either.

We remembered Elizabeth Walk, a widow, was dividing her land that flanked either side of route 156 — the wide-open gateway to the rural Helderberg Hilltowns. Route 156 heads uphill from Altamont to Knox, with country views opening on either side.

We recalled the planning board had concerns about preserving open space, and about poorly configured lots with driveways that used only the main road.

But the details, including the covenant, were lost to us. Fortunately, we keep clip files, and were able to look up our planning board stories from 1992 so we could see that, because of these concerns, the planning board had required a deed restriction, specifying the lots, if sold in the future, could not be subdivided again.

The future is now.

Knox finds itself in a dilemma because the current landowner, despite the planning board reversal, intends to pursue the subdivision he planned.

The initial misstep could have been avoided if the town had a better record-keeping system.

Our reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer, sought the minutes from the planning-board meetings in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as well as more recent planning-board minutes, so as to report fully and accurately. Minutes are records of government meetings, required by state law to be accessible to the public.

She began by calling town hall and learned the part-time clerk, Kim Swain, has limited hours. The clerk, reached at home, was very pleasant and tried to be helpful, but she didn’t have the minutes and didn’t think she could get them.

Our reporter then called Mary Loeber, who was the planning board clerk at the time of the original Walk subdivision. Loeber no longer works as a clerk for the planning board and no longer has the minutes but she said that, during her tenure, people would often borrow the minutes and not return them; she called the records spotty.

A long-time planning board member, Daniel Driscoll, graciously lent Hale Spencer a binder he had kept himself on planning board activities, beginning in January of 1977. The records in the binder, however, didn’t go up to 1992.

Finally, after contacting the zoning-board chairman, our reporter got in touch with the current clerk for the planning and zoning boards, Carol Barber; Barber faxed the June 8 minutes to The Enterprise.

Meanwhile, our reporter was told the old minutes were in a black file cabinet in town hall. She went to town hall during the hours the town clerk was there but found she didn’t have the keys to get into the building inspector’s office, where the black file cabinet is located.

So our reporter returned to town hall yet again, during the hours kept by the building inspector, Robert Delaney, on Thursday night. He was very helpful and, within a minute, plucked out the map of the Walk subdivision, with the covenant attached.

Delaney didn’t have the minutes in his office, though, and thought they might be in another room, where a meeting was going on.

All of the officials our reporter dealt with, both past and present, were very helpful. No one was trying to keep us from getting public records, which has happened in other towns with other stories we were covering.

No, the problem in Knox was merely lack of organization. We think it is a problem typical of many small towns and school districts.

We urge Knox to do what the nearby town of Rensselaerville did last month — put its public records in a format that is easily accessible to the public. Some towns and school districts have done this in-house; others, perhaps lacking staff with the time or expertise, have put out requests for proposals to do the work.

Rensselaerville is paying General Code from Rochester $1,764 to put the minutes from town board meetings, from 1976 to 2006, on CD-ROM (Compact Disc — Read Only Memory). The town will then pay $350 for annual maintenance.

Additionally, Rensselaerville is paying $8,800 to organize its scattered legal documents, put them in a bound volume, and post them on the town’s website. The town’s money is well spent.

This way, the public can be informed on what laws it is required to follow. Having minutes posted on-line is a good idea, too. They can easily be archived and indexed and, that way, those serving the town on boards can be informed before they make decisions.

We urge elected boards to make as much as possible in the public domain easily accessible on-line. Posting minutes is a good start but other documents, such as contracts, once ratified, should be posted on-line as well. Such documents, after all, detail how public funds are being spent on public employees. Having such an expectation will keep boards accountable.

For instance, the recent debacle faced by the Voorheesville School District might have been avoided. In January, the state comptroller had accused two former administrators of inappropriately paying themselves nearly a quarter of a million dollars over their long tenures. The school board, speaking through its president, expressed outrage towards the administrators and requested the Albany County District Attorney’s Office investigate and prosecute the administrators for larceny, fraud, and official misconduct.

When this newspaper was finally able to obtain copies of the contracts in question, we discovered it was not even clear which contract was the valid one. The district attorney’s office, which investigated for months and found no basis to prosecute the two retired administrators, determined the school board’s contracts with them likely violated state contract and education law.

The more documents that are posted publicly, the fewer mistakes will be made.

Exchanges like this at last month’s Knox Planning Board meeting will be a thing of the past:

A planning board member, before the unanimous vote to rescind the subdivision proposal it had approved the month before, asked about the covenant, "Is that something we should have had beforehand""

"Yes," answered the planning board chairman.

"Why didn’t we have it"" asked the member.

"It wasn’t in the file," replied the chairman.

Accessible records will inform the public as well as the decision-makers. Government will be both more efficient and more accountable.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

[Return to Home Page]