Schenectady council Democrats’ secrecy irritates public
Riggi out of loop as majority bends law
SCHENECTADY Schenectady Democrats will continue to hold closed-door meetings without independent Councilman Vince Riggi, the council president said.
President Denise Brucker said she plans to use caucus meetings regularly.
“It is what it is,” she said.
The Democrats — who hold every council seat but Riggi’s — were criticized for their caucuses by several residents at Tuesday’s council meeting. Afterward, the Democratic council members seemed to imply that they weren’t trying to exclude Riggi, but just wanted to speak without the press or the public watching.
Brucker said she wouldn’t force Riggi to leave when the Democrats close the doors. “You’re welcome to stay, but it will be an illegal meeting,” she said.
Councilman Carl Erikson said the same thing.
“I don’t have a problem with Mr. Riggi coming to our meetings,” he said. “I invite you to every meeting, but if you show, we could be breaking the law.”
The council is not allowed to meet behind closed doors in most instances, but the Democrats get around that by meeting as a caucus, which is legal. A caucus can only include members of one party, so Riggi cannot attend unless he switches his enrollment to the Democratic Party.
Erikson said it isn’t important to let the public hear the discussion that takes place on matters of public policy during those meetings. He said only voting must be public.
“The most important thing is the vote,” he said. “The public hears our votes and they judge us on that.”
The Open Meetings Law places a premium on discussion, requiring governing bodies to debate public policy in public before their vote. Bodies are only allowed to debate privately on a few topics, which include litigation, personal details about specific employees, and matters that would disclose the identity of a police informant. But caucuses can discuss any topic in private.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said he’s in favor of as much openness as possible. As chairman of the Municipal Housing Authority board of commissioners, he let the press stay during executive session discussions because it was awkward to move them in and out of the room, he said. Those meetings could be legally closed to the public.
As chairman of the county Democratic Committee, he offered to let the press into executive committee meetings, which are also legally allowed to be closed. And he championed increased broadcasting of the City Council’s meetings on the public access television station.
The city is “one of the most open” in the state, he said.
But he said there are reasons for having a closed meeting.
“You can banter things around and agree on what to say and create a better image,” he said. “If you say something publicly, you’re locked in.”
And although the Democrats held more open meetings when he led them, he said the criticism leveled against the council is unwarranted.
“It’s odd. The U.S. House uses it. The U.S. Senate uses it. Every other governmental body uses it,” he said. “These people are trying to create political advantage.”
Riggi said it’s more than just a political power play. He called the caucuses “lousy” and said he felt shut out of the decision-making process. While a caucus meeting is legal, he said the Democrats were exploiting a technicality.
“Is that the true spirit of the rule?” he said. “I think not.”
He added that his one vote couldn’t change the outcome of any decision if the rest of the Democrats voted together.
“Obviously, you can do what you want,” he said.
But that’s not entirely true. Riggi was successful this year in creating a coalition with two Democrats — council members Erikson and Barbara Blanchard, who is now in a rehabilitation hospital.
With Erikson and Blanchard allowing him to create a 3-3 standoff in the council, he was able to block several key pieces of legislation, most notably a proposal to buy SUVs for the Police Department.