Letter: Abuse of Executive Session/Closed Session

By Michael Bowman

I would like local residents to read an article that appeared on the VictorPost.com, a news blog serving the community of Victor, N.Y. I believe some local residents have pointed to Victor, NY as a case study for “Formula Business Ban” laws and as being somewhat equivalent to Cold Spring and Philipstown in terms of demographics.

Curiously, I came across this article entitled “Behind closed doors: Executive sessions” and it too struck me as another issue that we share in common with the community of Victor, NY.

On numerous occasions I have been in Town and Village meetings that have been adjourned into Executive Session, and on more than one occasion the Village of Cold Spring Attorney Stephen Gaba has attempted to explain to me how their use of “Closed Session” differs from the rules governing “Executive Session”. On all occasions the reasons given for these adjournments behind closed doors have always been generic things such as “To confer with consul,” “negotiations,” and “Personnel Matters.”

Well according to the New York State Committee on Open Government those types of generic justifications aren’t good enough. In fact, the voting, taxpaying public in attendance is entitled to more. “According to a recent Appellate Division decision, it’s not enough for leaders to merely regurgitate the statutory language for conducting an executive session. “They must plainly state what will be discussed, and should include enough information so the public can legitimately believe there’s a valid reason for closing the doors.”

I firmly believe that our local boards, especially the Village of Cold Spring Board of Trustees have abused the power of Executive Session and/or Closed Session on numerous occasions. The one instance that stands out in my mind was an occasion when I was asked to leave the Village Board Meeting room because the board was adjourning in order to enter a “closed session.” When I refused to leave the room because no topic was given, the Village Board instead decided to move their proceedings behind closed doors in a room down the hall. No justification, other than a generic “closed session” was ever provided to the public for this meeting. This made me begin to wonder exactly what issues were so sensitive in our one square mile village that they had to be handled in complete secrecy.

I think Robert Freeman, COOG executive director, is one-hundred percent correct when he warns “against the public, or leaders, settling for buzz words like “personnel,” which appear nowhere in Open Meetings Law or Freedom of Information Law. “In this country too many Americans have become stupid and sheep-like,” said Freeman, “and when we hear certain comments repeatedly, we begin to believe that they are true. And when we do, we may lose our rights.”

I invite all resident of Philipstown to read this article, and to familiarize themselves with the COOG website  Mr. Freeman is always available to answer taxpayer’s questions about local government procedural matters and how they pertain to the principals of Open Government. He can be reached at (518) 474-2518.

2 thoughts on “Letter: Abuse of Executive Session/Closed Session

  1. Ok, so imagine you were one among a number of applicants for a position working for a municipality and it was up to the board to decide who they should hire. Would you want your application discussed and compared to the others openly in front of anyone who might happen to be sitting in the audience? Would you want your personal work history and references read aloud before everyone, especially if you were NOT chosen? Such behavior could leave that municipality vulnerable to unfavorable interpretation of confidentiality laws.

    What if you, as an employee, had a dispute with your supervisor or another employee and some mild disciplinary action was appropriate for one or both of the parties. Would you want that discussion about your personnel matter subject to publication by the news media and misinterpretation by anyone who might be in earshot?

    These are just a couple hypothetical instances where it’s appropriate for trustees to have closed meetings to discuss personnel matters. It doesn’t mean the BOT is trying to hide anything from the public. There are times when privacy must be protected and thus the municipality from litigation liability.

  2. Lynn,

    Completely agree with you on those circumstances. However, there have been many other issues other then “personnel matters” which closed sessions have been used for.

    For example, the article on dot.info today suggested that the Village attorney Stephen Gaba recommended a “closed session” between the Planning Board and the Butterfield developer, without a quorum and out of the prying eyes of the public. He actually used the term “best discussed in a less fraught venue.”

    I’m sorry but I stand by my belief that in the past three years our local government has misused executive session, closed session, whatever term Mr. Gaba wants to deem it…and as a result our local governments have been less transparent and less open then before.

    In fact, even the tools that were so fought for to insure transparency (the website, published agendas, video taping of meetings) have been used to thwart transparency – as evidenced in the pay raise controversy of the past two weeks.