The concept of “open government” may be reaching a new low in Greenburgh today.
The Greenburgh Town Board has on its agenda tonight three public hearings on a proposed law and certain controversial land use approvals – but it has not yet disclosed to the public what the proposed law says or what the land use approvals specifically entail.
To make matters even worse, the Town Board also has on its agenda a total of 16 proposed resolutions – some of which may be quite controversial and could raise a number of questions – but here too, as of noon today, there has been no disclosure of what’s up for consideration.
The public hearings include a frequently postponed hearing on a new law governing truck weights on Town-owned roads. That measure may be extremely helpful to residents in residential neighborhoods that are burdened by heavy truck traffic looking to bypass traffic on state highways, such as Tarrytown Road and Central Avenue. It may also be helpful to those residents worried about the prospect of an assisted living facility being located in Edgemont at the corner of Underhill and Sprain Roads, both of which are also town roads.
But the Town, which has invited the public to a hearing on the measure, still hasn’t disclosed what the new law actually says.
That’s not all. The Town Board is also scheduled to approve a $115,000 contract with Xposure, the Town’s after school program, but the terms of the contract haven’t been disclosed and it’s not clear whether this expenditure is included in the Town’s $142,000 line item in the community center’s budget for “part-time education” or whether the Town plans on restoring the line item it used to have in its budget for “Xposure.”
The matter is controversial because, even though taxpayers in all of unincorporated Greenburgh from other school districts which operate after school programs at far greater cost to parents are required to foot the bill for the cost, Xposure states on its website that the only children actually enrolled in the program are children from the Greenburgh Central school district, which makes sense since, even though town officials won’t say so publicly, Xposure is really intended for children from families that are economically at risk. The Town also provides free busing for children in that school district to participate in the program.
But the policy issue here that town officials avoid discussing is whether important social welfare programs like Xposure should be paid for by property taxes in unincorporated Greenburgh, or whether the Town should instead be seeking alternative sources of funding for such programs.
And there may also be a breakthrough in the dispute over whether the Town’s civic groups should be charged retroactively for fees and costs associated with their seeking to enforce the Town’s zoning law. The Town is now demanding that the ECC pay at least $900 for an ongoing appeal involving the building inspector’s decision that the assisted living facility proposed for Edgemont at the site of the Sprainbrook Nursery needs no variances. The proposal that’s supposed to be voted on tonight suggests that the Town Board plans to return some of the money it collected from the ECC, but without seeing any of the details, none of which have been disclosed, it’s impossible to know whether the Town’s offer comes with strings attached.
So, is any of this illegal? The answer is that while it is certainly not consistent with any reasonable concept of open government in New York, and appears to show contempt for the public, which the Town Board already gives only three minutes per person to comment on in any event, the Town’s failure to make timely disclosure is not technically illegal.
Under the New York Open Meetings Law, any proposed resolution, law or policy that is scheduled to be the subject of discussion by a public body during an open meeting, shall be made available “prior to or at the meeting” during which the matter will be discussed. So, expect the Town to trickle out these measures online, one by one, until just prior to the meeting, so that no member of the public could possibly be able to read them, much less be in a position to offer any meaningful comment.
You might well ask, is that still the law, even with the Internet? The answer is yes, if a town “regularly and routinely” updates its website and utilizes a high speed internet connection,” such records are only required to be posted “to the extent practicable” as determined by town officials.
Greenburgh, of course, maintains a website, but its elected officials are not required to post anything online in advance of their meetings if they determine that such posting is not “practicable.”
One might well ask whether town board members who will be voting tonight on these measures have actually seen them. In theory, the resolutions should have been generated as of last Friday, when the Town Board’s agenda for tonight’s meeting was posted online. And they should certainly have been available for town board members to read in time for yesterday’s work session, where “agenda review” was on the agenda.
But it’s impossible to really know because no resolutions were ever posted online for anyone to see and, as is often the case with town board work sessions, no substantive discussion of the agenda took place in public at all yesterday. So one might well conclude based on the public record that if the public hasn’t seen them yet, no member of the Town Board has either, which suggests that elected officials in Greenburgh may be voting on matters they’ve never seen, much less read or understood.
One town board member, Francis Sheehan, routinely holds matters over if they have not been posted in a timely manner. But Mr. Sheehan is the one person responsible for posting these measures – Town Clerk Judith Beville evidently never learned how or town board members don’t trust her to do it – and if he were to adhere to past practices tonight, there wouldn’t be much on the Town Board’s agenda tonight at all.
If residents feel they’re being given the bum’s rush tonight by their local elected officials, their recourse is either to elect different officials who actually invite meaningful public participation or, alternatively, they can try to get their state officials to put some teeth into the state’s Open Meetings Law.
So, rather than make timely disclosure in advance of tonight’s meeting of the business that will actually be discussed and probably voted on – measures that will have financial and quality-of-life impacts on many residents of the Town, Town Supervisor Paul Feiner instead issued a town-wide press release, also posted on the Town’s website, touting a robotics demonstration tonight by third graders at a Greenburgh Central elementary school to be followed by a second such demonstration by students from Ardsley High School.