In January, many will start the New Year with goals to exercise more, eat better, lose weight, etc. January will also be when newly elected public servants or incumbents starting another term take office across New York State.
Old habits are hard to change in people and especially hard to change in government. The biggest issue in government today is the lack of trust the public has in their elected leaders. The best way to build trust as an elected official is through transparency. Elected officials should begin 2023 by conducting the public’s business in an open and transparent way. To show their commitment to open government, elected officials serving on a village board, town board, city council or county legislature should introduce and pass a new year’s resolution stating they will:
- Post timely notice of all meetings at least one week before all meetings.
- Post meeting agendas and all meeting documents online at least 24 hours before a meeting occurs.
- Post draft meeting minutes online, no more than two weeks after a meeting occurs.
- Allow members of the public to speak at the beginning of a meeting regarding agenda and non-agenda items, whether attending in person or remotely.
- Live-stream their meetings by video and post the video recording online afterward.
- Only conduct private executive sessions on rare occasions and in accordance with the New York State Open Meetings Law. Just because you can hold an executive session does not mean that you have to. A motion to hold an executive session to discuss litigation, personnel or collective bargaining is not sufficient: The Open Meetings Law requires motions to state more information when holding an executive session.
- Agree not to hold private political party caucus meetings. There is no reason to hold private political party caucus meetings at the local level to discuss political or public business. Secret meetings build a lack of trust among the public.
- Post information about the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) in a visible place on your website. Proactively post documents online as much as possible so the public can access information without having to file a FOIL request. Post an easy, fill-in-the-blank form on your website that assists the public in filing a FOIL request by email.
- Commit to ensuring that all FOIL requests are acknowledged within five days as required by law and that information is provided to the public promptly.
Paul Wolf, Esq., is president of the New York Coalition for Open Government.