GETTING SCHOOLED ON NEW DISCLOSURE LAW
By Bob Confer

For years, the model citizens who engaged in their civic duty by attending and speaking at town and school meetings had faced an uphill battle in their quest to make their voice heard as best as it could be. Many found themselves at a disadvantage to the elected officials whom they were working with (or against). Whereas the board members had access to reams of documents supporting the topics scheduled for discussion at the meeting, the average citizen was left in the cold, possessing only the simple agenda for the evening’s affair.

That changed - somewhat - on February 2nd when section 103(e) of the Open Meetings Law went into effect. It says that any proposed resolution, law, rule, regulation, policy or amendment set for discussion during the meeting must be made available to the public in advance of said meeting. The law says that if the governing body maintains and regularly updates a website it has to post online that information which many call the “board member packet”.

A majority of school districts across New York have not had a problem complying with the law. Schools have long had vibrant, fluid websites that provide students, parents, and teachers with data ranging from a rundown of the day’s events to instructional information. Because of that, most have done a bang-up job of providing agendas to and minutes from their Board of Education meetings. So, it’s only fitting that they provide board member packets in their entirety.

A perfect example of a compliant organization is the Royalton-Hartland school district. In the day prior to their March 8 meeting they put onto their website a PDF file that gave residents everything they would need to read on with the board and/or be at par with them if a public discussion ensued. That massive file was 19 megabytes in size and 151 pages in length. Delivered in that manner, it is extremely convenient and its use is left to discretion: The activist can print up the sheet she wants or take her laptop computer to the meeting so she can have access to the entire tome.

While school districts have performed admirably in meeting the new law, municipalities have failed miserably. Most websites maintained by cities, villages and towns are not updated regularly, despite ever-evolving government and public services. Some see weekly updates, others monthly. Many more are static and never change. Because of that, they’ve been able to comply in their own little way, which, based on the language of section 103(e) allows agencies without routinely updated websites (with no exact definition of “routinely updated”) to make the board member packets available prior to or at the meeting for a reasonable fee (again, “reasonable fee” is left up to interpretation). So, a gadfly about the city hall will have to go through the rigmarole of going to that facility one day or one hour early, requesting the information, paying for it, and then awaiting its printing, while still affording himself some preparatory time to go through the documents prior to the meeting. When it comes to municipalities, full disclosure remains the obstacle that it always has been.

The best way to overcome that -- and to make sure that local governments follow the same just practices of schools -- is to hold them accountable. If you find that your taxing jurisdiction regularly makes agendas, minutes, and more available online in a timely manner you have a pretty good case to demand that the packets be made available online. If that doesn’t work, take it to the next level. Share your concerns with the Department of State’s Committee on Open Government. They have a full-featured website at www.dos.ny.gov/coog/

On the other hand, if your community isn’t web savvy and has only a minimal presence on the internet, politely ask that they get with the Twenty-first Century. Informational websites don’t have to be elaborate works of art. They can be made affordably and easily in-house and they can be updated with almost no effort.

In either scenario, a simple clerical act of scanning documents and/or uploading Word and Excel files is all that’s necessary for disclosure. All the municipality has to do is put information online; information that’s useful to you as a resident and, more importantly, as an engaged citizen.

 

 

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at bobconfer@juno.com.
 

This column originally ran in the 19 Mar 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers

 

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