Schenectady City Council Democrats excluded the council’s lone non-Democratic member, public and press from two recent meetings where important decisions about “public” business were made. Although they’re allowed to hold these so-called political caucuses under the state open meetings law, they violated the law’s spirit and showed disrespect for the public by doing so.
Some history is in order here. The open meetings law has had an exemption for political party meetings or caucuses ever since it was adopted in 1976. But courts, noting the law’s broad language favoring openness wherever possible, limited the exemption to such things as party business and agendas. If the party, either majority or minority, was to discuss public business, the meeting had to be open, the courts said.
In 1985, everything changed after the state Assembly was threatened with a lawsuit for denying a reporter access to its political caucuses. The Legislature quickly passed an amendment to the open meetings law giving itself and local legislative bodies the right to discuss even public business in closed-door conferences or caucuses. It said that the public interest was promoted by “private, candid exchange of ideas and points of view among members of each political party concerning the public business to come before legislative bodies.”
But even then, the Appellate Division in a 1991 decision said that a line could be drawn between “candid discussions” among party members and “the conduct of public business.” We’d venture to say that in a city like Schenectady, where one party is dominant, the decisions made in party caucuses — especially when those decisions are adopted the next day with minimal discussion, as they were with two important budget votes in recent weeks — effectively constitute the conduct of public business.
Judging by the reaction at Tuesday’s regular council meeting, the public is not happy about this turn of events. But that doesn’t matter to the Democrats, who will hold caucuses regularly in the future, according to council President Denise Brucker.
Or maybe it depends on what the meaning of “is” is. Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo told us in a recent letter to the editor that these closed-door meetings, where no one but the Democrats are in attendance, aren’t “secret” meetings, because a) the law allows them and b) secret to her means "slimy people slinking through dark alleys to avoid being detected."
And Councilman Carl Erikson said what really matters is how he voted, not the debate or discussion that led to his vote. But if that were the case, why have an open meetings law at all?
Even with the exemption, there’s an intent behind that law: to let sunshine into government, to let the public see their representatives in action. The council is on the wrong path. It shouldn’t be doing its work in private just because it can.