We'd like to see local governments and schools start the year off on the right foot by showing their commitment to openness, freedom of information and following state law.
Last year, on Feb. 2, a new state Disclosure of Records law went into effect. The law requires governments and schools to make documents that will be discussed at a meeting available before the meeting upon request or on a municipal website.
Many have been obeying the law, but some have not complied as well as they should. Often, reporters still are unable to easily access documents that are being discussed at public meetings.
In addition, some localities and schools still try to close meetings, or portions of them, when they should be open to the public.
For example, in September, the Gloversville Enlarged School District Board of Education conducted a private meeting that may have violated the state Open Meetings Law. A Leader-Herald reporter trying to cover the meeting was told it was not open to the public and the board had gathered to discuss legal matters with an attorney. The Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to announce their meetings ahead of time. The meeting was not announced and never was opened in a public session, so the proper procedure for calling a closed executive session - for the board to talk to its attorney, for example - was not followed.
Open-government laws protect the public's right to obtain public information and know what government is up to. These laws are a friend to anyone who supports democracy, freedom and the First Amendment.
As our localities start meeting in the new year, we offer a reminder about open meetings. Public bodies cannot close their doors to the public to discuss the subjects of their choice. There are only eight topics that legally can be discussed in private. They are:
Matters that will imperil the public safety if disclosed.
Any matter that may disclose the identity of a law-enforcement agent or informer.
Information relating to the current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense that would imperil law enforcement if disclosed.
Discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation.
Collective negotiations pursuant to the civil service law.
The medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, discipline or dismissal of a particular person or corporation.
The preparation, grading or administration of examinations.
The proposed acquisition, sale or lease of property or the proposed acquisition or sale of securities, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value of them.
As you can see, the legal justification for a closed meeting is rare. We encourage members of the public to tell their local municipalities and school boards to keep the shades open and let the sunshine in.