Village Attorney Sheds Light on Open Meeting Rules

by Judy Silberstein

(October 8, 2003) At their regularly scheduled meeting on October 5, the Village of Larchmont’s Board of Trustees acknowledged big birthdays for two community institutions: The Senior Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary and LMC-TV is hitting its 20th (See: Sunny Award). In addition, the Village Attorney provided a primer on open government.

Feedback on Lights? The Board is considering this model at Gilder Street and Larchmont Avenue.

For some time, Trustee Marlene Kolbert has been asking for a Board discussion to clarify provisions of laws governing open meetings and sharing of government documents

Trustee Kolbert’s concerns stemmed, in part, from having attended an Environmental Committee where a trustee was asked to leave because other trustees were already in attendance. It had been the Mayor’s view that the appearance of more than three trustees would constitute a quorum of the Board requiring prior public notification.

Village Attorney Jim Staudt supplied a brief legal background: the open meeting law is mostly about exceptions. All meetings are to be held in the open, with appropriate prior notification to the public except for specifically exempted cases, for example, discussions of private personnel matters, attorney-client privileges, real estate negotiations or labor agreements.

The law, however, does not provide clear guidelines about what to do about chance arrival of trustees at a meeting. If the trustees sit quietly and do not participate in any discussions or deliberations, perhaps that would be allowed, he opined. However, if they start engaging in the conversation, that would require prior notice. Attorney Staudt’s advice: Given the difficulty of ensuring that trustees keep quiet, it would be better to avoid the situation by limiting the number of trustees.

Trustee Kolbert also voiced concerns about Board executive sessions: what issues may properly be conducted behind closed doors? This is an issue she feels concerns every board.

The Mayor pointed out that there are documents available to explain the rules to board members. He mentioned the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM) newsletters; there are also online resources on Freedom of Information Law and on Open Meetings Law.

“I know the rules, but there are people out in the public who do not, and they need to hear this discussion,” she said.

On the issue of documents, Trustee Kolbert had questions about when a document becomes available to the public. This comes up at least once a year when the Board is meeting with each department and preparing a preliminary budget. Last year political candidates complained about lack of disclosure of budget material. “I’m trying to have this discussion early on, before we’re even into the budget and the election cycle,” she said.

Attorney Staudt explained that, again, documents are “foillable,” i.e., subject to the Freedom of Information Act, unless they are specifically exempted. Anyone can make a request for foilable documents. Preliminary reports fall into the exempted category, although data and statistics do not.

Contacted later, Trustee Mike Wiener commented “Jim brought up exactly what I understood the Open Meeting law to be. When in doubt, call him, because the law is driven by exceptions.” Trustee Wiener also noted that the discussion “does show that everyone on the Board is trying to be respectful of the Open Meetings law and not hide anything.”

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