How Open Is the Open Meeting Law

Written By: Deprecated User

A recent artcle in the Westchester Guardian featured Bob Freeman from New York State Committee on Open Government presenting information on the Open Meeting Law. Mention was made of pending legislation sponsored by Assembly woamn Paulin (A00081) which would fruther strengthen a citizen’s right to obtain important information on requiring the State to make record documentation from meetings and other sources available to the public. Unfortunately two lamentable facts came into play (1) the Open Meeting law is not enforced by the State and relies on the “good will” and due diligence of municipal bodies to comply with the law A dissatisfied litigant would have to arrange to secure legal assistance to bring the matter in question up to the Supreme Court and likely, be obligated to pay significant legal expenses. In addition, A00081 was returned for a signifcant rewrite and a considerably weaker bill, A72B, was finally agreed to by the Senate and Assembly and signed by the Governor. This seems to follow the trail of other NYS laws, specifically the Businss Corporate Law which, for the most part, also require litigants to obtain private counsel to advance their course. It is both distateful and depressing to see bills that actively inform, involve, and energize the NYS electorate be treated with such a negative mind-set and it should present the need for sites like TOTS who work hard to fill in the gaps caused by a lack of high level support.

My major message is on the issue of accuntability to the community and how our national, state and local political structure and many office-holders have placed re-election over service and simple-mind conventional thinking over what we really need, a good dose of critical problem solving mixed with the common sense we find in the typical household and neighborhood. In New Rochelle this crystallizes into a few major factors that form the substance of our property tax, management, and development issues and they are (1) taking responsibility and accountability for the school district and library and (2) making the necessary commitments and priorties to grow the downtown business district in a way that promotes subtance over form. They both are essential. TOTS has laid bare the issues in not placing an emphatic city action plan and strategy especially given deterioraating performance levels, issues in the quality of oversight (school board) and management (superintendent and his senior team). The facts are inarguable. What we do not discuss enough is the lack of common sense in failing to devote some direct administration response to these issues and it is troubling to contemplate how any strategic or development plan can ignore this relationship and responsibility. Of course we have many first rate teachers, administrators, and students, but that does not even touch upon the business and development issues and I don’t think you will find any instance where the City Couincil or even the Admininstration has acknowledged this relationship and put some action plan into effect to become very, very involved in the district’s affairs.

I will not go into what TOTS has raised in the past. You can see all this for yourselves. And, it is not negative to raise this key aspect of city planning. Many other communities see the relationship and it can be simply stated that it is not only a tax issue, but an issue of our ability to attract commercial and residential net worth companies and residents. You cannot do this with a system that is losing ground.

It is not surprising that this is happening and the fact that the overseers of the district for most, perhaps all the years, are people who have little or no experience in managing a quarter of a billion dollar budget. You cannot expect high end oversight and policy from lawyers, parents, formers school personnel, even non managerial private industry people. This is no knock on them, it is just a plain and inarguable fact as is the lack of direct City participation in the affaris of the district. It is actually quite sad; you have fufndamentally decent people on both sides of the equation trying to manage and co-exist by old rules of play. There are ways to do this effectively even without subsuming the school and library boards under dity management.

However, even this pales before the incongruity of not managing the city according to its own Charter and Code. This is a purely political act and its painful to see that decent and honorable people ignore the clarity of the Code’s roles, relationships and responsibilites of the Ceremonial Mayor, City Council, and Business Manager. I have been accused of being “naive’ or worse, “theoretical” when raising this point; almost as if by managing to the city’s rule of law, is somehow indefensible. Why is that so? I wrestle with this very point very often; it is almost as if critics and even supporters of the city would prefer to look at the dark side and see graft, corruption, patronage and well, politics. Surely, some of this exists, but I don’t think it defines the problem much less the people involved in governance. So, I am going to request at the first available public city council meeting, that one council member propose and another second, the task of asking our corporation counsel to present to the public via a timely council meeeting, exactly what these roles, relationships and responsibilities are and are not.

If this is done, you can decide for yourselves whether the politics of New Rochelle square with your belief of proper governance. I have failed to see one instance for example, where any city council member has come up with a viable idea for growing our downtown business district, I have heard many complaints about abatement, but little knowledge as to what an abatement really represents and how we can sharpen up the process to illuminate that our product, New Rochelle, is more than a diesrable business commodity and so, we can both strike for better terms, and mostly, manage the process much mroe effectively to protect the taxpayers dollar. We need to know when to say no on a MOU renewal, come up with similar incentives to retain desirable businesses when the renewal rates go through the proverbial roof. I have seen rates well in the range of high end per square footage costs that are the same as Chelsea, Soho and Murray Hill in New York City.

Most successful cities; those that attract commercial and residential newcomers, expect basic services and support. We have a BID head who operates in some back alley in Westchester Place. I fail to see one piece of signage on Main Street or lower North Avenue containing the name, New Rochelle. Why can’t we move out some operating departments from 515 North Avenue to midtown or downtown? Why can’t we hold focus groups for high net worth residents to find out precisely what sorts of services, support, and yes, security they need to want to invest their time and dollars here? I see no logical reason not to create a police facility on Main Street — and in my mind it is not a question of patrol practice but urban renewal. People need to feel safe and frankly they do not feel safe at this time.

Downtown and midtwn is a dog’s breakfast of haphazard growth, maintenance, and loss requiring new ways of looking at urban policy. There are many fine examples on file to review; in fact, our recent Stamford Connecticut people should be more than familiar with some of thsse and the potential to integrate the entire planning process from and with Comprehensive long term, Sustainability, and Short Term, was never more urgently needed than now.

A few other observations: we have a highly politicized city council currntly consisting of 4 majority and 3 minority members. Their meetings are often painful to watch and their postering and press statements are highly political. That makes them understandable to the degree that politics is, lamentably, a stepping stone or a caeer. But we need much more as citizens and taxpayers now. I recall the Fevang situaion and the courage of Council member Trangucci. But, why didn’t the council actively exercise its Charter responsiblities shortly thereafter to investigate and subpoena witnesses. They have that right and responsiblity, but it is too useful as a political football; instead we get histrionics and calls for action six months later which was their responsbility six months earlier. Read the Charter and Code. It is very clear.

And so the council meetings drone on. They are highly political, adversarial and often shameful. Sometmes it seems like a moot court exercise or a Jesuit debate on Scripture or a Talmudic picking apart of wotds until the central theme is totally lost.

So, last week I attended a viable, uplifting and simple community event sponsored by local clergy, Council Member Rice and some of the finest people I have met in a long time. They were focused, faith based and dedicated to the simple act of cleaning up debris in the community. A geat citizen, Jim Killoran of Habitat was part of it, and in all candor, it has led to this lenghty expression of discomfort and concern about our national, state and city polis; somehow we have lost our sense of self, our love of community, and have went to a dark place. I am a strong supporter of Noam Bramson and proud to say so and I hope he finds some merit in what I am saying. I am a believer in free and open conversation and Bob Cox provides that for this community regardless of personal lkes and dislikes of presentation and political leanings. WVOX did a disservice by closing the door and honestly, many readers out there who don’t like TOTS or its editorial content should simply step in and say that. I am not the biggest fan of a good deal of that, but he is an asset. Our council can be more of an asset by stablizing the city over the self. Step together or step aside. God Bless all who read this and love our community.