Amsterdam

Amsterdam school board skirts open meetings law

Public could not watch Wednesday's meeting live, despite mandate to do so
Amsterdam High School Friday, January 17, 2020.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Amsterdam High School Friday, January 17, 2020.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

AMSTERDAM — The Greater Amsterdam School Board at its Wednesday meeting discussed possible staff reductions, tax increases and an ongoing redistricting effort – but no one in the public could watch or listen to the meeting remotely as it unfolded.

The meeting was held remotely because of COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

While other districts around the Capital Region have worked out ways for the public to watch school board meetings as they are conducted, Amsterdam school district officials didn’t ensure the public could watch Wednesday’s board meeting as it happened. The meeting, which touched on the district budget and a wide range of other issues, included appearances from district staff and the district’s construction consultants, who were patched into the meeting, and went on for over three hours.

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But a district spokesman told a Daily Gazette reporter five minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start that there was no way for the public to gain live access to the meeting, citing the district’s interpretation of a March executive order involving the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order last month suspending certain in-person meeting requirements for public bodies like school boards but mandated boards still ensure the “public has the ability to view or listen to” meetings. The order also required school boards to ensure meetings “are recorded and later transcribed.”

Amsterdam school district spokesman John Noetzel on Thursday said the district’s “interpretation” of the public meeting requirements under the governor’s order was that the meeting could be conducted without granting real-time access to the public so long as the meeting was recorded and made available to the public at some point after the meeting had concluded.

“Nowhere in there does it say it has to be live,” he said of the executive order.

Jason Conwall, a spokesman in the Governor’s Office, on Thursday said the intent of the order is that public boards ensure members of the public have the ability to view or listen to public meetings live.

The district’s interpretation of the meeting requirements also did not jive with the interpretation of attorneys at the state Committee on Open Government, the state agency charged with overseeing and offering formal advice on the state’s open meetings and public records laws.

“They have an obligation to provide remote, contemporaneous access,” Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government, said Thursday. “The public has to be able to listen or view while the meeting is occurring.”

The committee issued a March 26 advisory opinion regarding a similar issue facing a state agency that asked whether it could conduct meetings remotely by teleconference or video conference without livestreaming the audio or video to the public.

The formal advisory opinion concluded that the public agency board could meet remotely but that the ability to suspend in-person meeting requirements “appears to be expressly contingent upon the board affording the public the ability contemporaneously to view or listen to such proceeding.”

Noetzel provided a link to a recording of the meeting, posted to YouTube, at around 2 p.m. Thursday.

While Noetzel suggested district officials had weeks ago determined the order did not require the district make board meetings available for real-time public viewing, board President Nellie Bush on Thursday said she had expected the meeting to be open to the public until she learned that wasn’t the case minutes prior to the meeting’s start. She said it was possible other board members were not even aware members of the public were unable to observe the meeting Wednesday night. 

Bush said she expected public access to be part of the meeting but that she hadn’t inquired with district officials prior to the meeting if that was the case. She said she left the technical logistics of organizing the meeting to others.

“I knew it was going to be a virtual meeting, but I can’t worry about the logistics of making it happen,” she said Thursday. “But I did anticipate the public would be able to view it.”

She said she intended for future meetings to include live public access: “I think it’s important the public has access,” she said.

The district did not seek advice from its attorney on how to manage the public meetings until the paper inquired about how Wednesday’s meeting was conducted. But on Thursday, lawyers advised the district to provide live public access for future virtual meetings, which district officials now plan to do, Noetzel said.

For Wednesday’s meeting, Interim Superintendent Ray Colucciello and a handful of other district staff appeared to be conducting the meeting from within a school building, sitting a distance from another, while board members, outside consultants and other district staff participated remotely through a Google service.

Other school boards in the region have used the same Google service to host meetings in recent weeks but have provided details to the public for how to log in to the meeting to observe live.

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