For years at public meetings, citizens have watched governmental board members pore through packets of materials and listened to them refer to documents the public had not yet seen. But as of this month, materials provided to the board referring to any topic listed on board agendas must be also made available to the public before or during the meeting, according to changes in the state's Open Meetings Law. The Law applies to local and state government entities as well ass school boards.
Photo by Thom Randall.
As of Feb. 2, New York state government began requiring boards to give the public access to their records on issues scheduled for discussion at public meetings.
Those packets that members of the town board, school board or any public board have with them during the meeting, which are listed on the agenda, must now be made available for the public to review before or during the meetings.
“Members of the public have on many occasions complained that they cannot fully understand discussions among members of public bodies, even though the discussions occur in public,” states the New York Department of State Committee on Open Government. “For example, a board member might refer to the second paragraph of page 3 of a record without disclosing its content prior to the meeting. Although the public has the right to be present, the ability to understand or contribute to the decision-making process may be minimal and frustrating.”
This change to the Open Meetings Law was made so “those interested in the work of public bodies should have the ability, within reasonable limitations, to see the records scheduled to be discussed during open meetings prior to the meetings.”
The change to the law centers around two types of records:
1) those that are required to be made available pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL);
2) and proposed resolutions, law, rules, regulations, policies or amendments thereto.
When these records are scheduled to be discussed, they must be made available to the public “to the extent practicable, either prior to or at the meeting.”
In order to comply with the amendment, copies of records must be made available to the public prior to or at the meeting for a reasonable fee or by posting them online prior to the meeting.
The Committee on Open Government also defines which boards are required to put this material on their websites:
“If the agency in which a public body functions (i.e., a state department, a county, city, town, village or school district) ‘maintains a regularly and routinely updated website and utilizes a high speed internet connection,’ the records described above that are scheduled to be discussed in public ‘shall be posted on the website to the extent practicable as determined by the agency…’
The state recommends that agencies put their materials online to save costs associated with requests made under FOIL.