Government meetings are secret – and legal
State law mandates that local legislative bodies conduct their business in public. But a loophole allows elected officials to caucus in private, and a new report finds that many legislative bodies do.
The Erie County Legislature is among those that not only caucus, but discuss public matters, according to a new study released by the New York Coalition for Open Government.
These “secret meetings” held behind closed doors throughout the state’s local governments “completely gut” the Open Meetings Law, leaving the public in the dark, according to the report.
“The public meeting becomes just a show or just a sham. And I don’t think enough people are aware of this,” said Paul Wolf, the coalition’s president.
The coalition’s study, released Jan. 26, was based on a survey of 57 county legislatures to determine how many conducted private caucus meetings. Fourteen counties responded; the coalition obtained information on an additional 13. Twenty-three of the 27 acknowledge holding private caucus meetings.
Erie County’s Legislature admitted to discussing public business during political caucus meetings, according to the coalition’s results. Greene, Otsego, Seneca and Steuben counties also admitted to the practice.
However, Erich Weyant, the Erie County Legislature’s chief of staff, said public matters are not discussed during the legislature’s caucus meetings. He said he is unaware who responded to the coalition’s survey.
Regardless, Wolf believes the lack of transparency in government throughout the state is a disservice to its citizens.
“Whenever politicians go in a back room to talk about public business, that’s not a good thing,” Wolf said. “There’s just no way to monitor what’s occurring, why they’re doing things.”
Local governments, however, are not breaking the Open Meetings Law.
County legislatures, city councils and other government bodies are shielded by an amendment to the law made in 1985. The amendment states political parties may meet in private “without regard to (i) the subject matter under discussion, including discussions of public business.”
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In Erie County, the majority party — seven Democrats — has the ability to discuss public matters behind closed doors before legislative meetings without including the other four other members of the Legislature, three Republicans and a Conservative.
“Preceding full legislative meetings, each party holds a caucus to review agenda items,” the Erie County Legislature’s website says. “The caucuses are presided over by the leaders of the respective parties.”
These caucus meetings are separate from the legislative work sessions that are open to the public. During work sessions, each party combines in a “joint caucus.”
The coalition pointed out that this loophole has led to public representatives “holding private closed door meetings, where everything is discussed and worked out prior to any public meeting.”
The 1985 exemption allows for “deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses.”
Wolf said: “When they do that behind closed doors, we’re completely left in the dark as to what’s really going on.”
“The state Legislature certainly made [the exemption] for themselves,” Wolf said. “And the state legislature will frequently exempt themselves from laws that they require others to follow.”
The exemption allowing private political caucuses has drawn criticism and lawsuits, including a 1992 lawsuit by The Buffalo News against the Buffalo Common Council.
That same year, a bill was proposed in the state Senate that would “repeal” the political caucus exemption and “open the decision making process up to public scrutiny both at the state and local level.”
The legislation didn’t pass.
However, when Democrats on Buffalo’s Common Council — that is, all of them — caucus before a voting session, those meetings are open to the public and broadcast live on Facebook. The Erie County Legislature’s party caucuses, meanwhile, remain closed and none of its meetings are broadcast on any platform.
Wolf’s outlook on the possibility of eliminating the law’s exemption does not waver.
“Our hope is, with this report, we can shine a light on this, build some momentum to make some changes and correct this,” he said.