Montgomery urges county to get engaged
In June 2019, the nine-member Putnam County Legislature unanimously voted to join the state’s Climate Smart Communities program, which rewards municipalities and counties with access to grants to fund environmentally friendly upgrades to fight global warming.
Two years later, the Legislature’s Economic Development and Energy Committee scheduled an update on the county’s Climate Smart initiative. But it was postponed when the task force coordinator, Lauri Taylor, could not make the June 8 meeting, held by audio connection.
Instead, Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley and serves on the committee, took the opportunity to urge the county to advance its climate change agenda.
She also zeroed in on the composition of the county’s Climate Smart task force, appointed by County Executive MaryEllen Odell; the lack of minutes from its meetings; and the general secrecy surrounding its work.
In New York, each municipality aspiring to Climate Smart certification must establish a task force. According to the state, this committee “should consist of, at a minimum, community members and municipal representatives — staff and/or elected officials,” although communities “may want to invite representatives from relevant local boards, organizations and businesses,” as well.
Putnam’s task force lacks such broad reach. Instead, it consists of the same members as Odell’s advisory Executive Capital Projects Committee, including Odell and her deputy; the planning commissioner; the highway and facilities commissioner and his deputy; the purchasing director; the assistant planning and design supervisor; the first deputy county attorney; the information technology director; the finance commissioner; and Legislator Carl Albano of Carmel, who chairs the Legislature’s Physical Services Committee.
2 Committees, 1 Name = Confusion
After the June 8 committee meeting, Legislator Nancy Montgomery observed that until recently the county had two groups called the Capital Projects Committee. The first was created in 2013 to advise the county executive; in 2019 it got the additional responsibility of serving as the Climate Smart task force. The second committee, mandated by the county charter, consists of legislators who meet annually to budget for capital spending.
To avoid confusion, County Executive MaryEllen Odell in March renamed her committee the Executive Capital Projects Committee.
When the county needed to establish a Climate Smart task force in September 2019, Odell explained, she decided that her Executive Capital Projects Committee “would be in the best position to seamlessly implement the various programs and initiatives called for by the Climate Smart Communities project.”
In mid-March, Montgomery asked to see the task force minutes.
Odell responded in a memo that a Climate Smart task force session “is an in-house meeting, not a public meeting,” so “there are no minutes taken.”
According to the state, applicants must submit “a list of the task force members and the organizations they represent, showing that the task force includes representatives from the local government and from the community,” and provide “meeting minutes, including sign-in sheets or other records of attendance, from two task force meetings held within the past year.”
In its directives, the state suggests that its Committee on Open Government can address questions of whether task force meetings should be governed by the Open Meetings Law. On Wednesday (June 16), Kristin O’Neill, the Open Government Committee’s assistant director, said that a task force would likely not be considered a “public body” subject to the law because it has an advisory role and does not make final decisions.
Before the Economic Development Committee session, Montgomery again asked about the minutes. She told the committee that in addition to being denied minutes, she has not been allowed to attend the Climate Smart task force meetings.
Montgomery said that state grants totaling $11 million are available in 2021 for communities pursuing Climate Smart goals. “We’re not going to receive any of these, again, because we don’t have a record of any minutes for the past two years,” she said.
She added that it appears, through various projects, Putnam has completed some of the steps required by the state for certification. But were the county properly engaged, “we could be receiving half of the money back for those projects already implemented,” she said. Instead, “we’re just losing out again.”