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N-W CSD receives highest grade from Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government

Thu, May 9th 2019 02:15 pm

The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government released its latest report. The websites of the 10 largest school districts in Erie and Niagara counties were rated in five key areas:

•Are meeting agendas and documents posted online, for five years.

•Are meeting minutes posted timely online, for five years.

•Are school board meetings video recorded and posted online.

•Are members of the public allowed to speak at school board meetings, before votes are taken on items.

•Are executive sessions done in accordance with the Open Meetings Law.

Four out of 10 districts received a passing score with Niagara-Wheatfield receiving the highest overall score of 89.

Summary of Findings Posting of Meeting Agendas

Citizens should have access to the same documents that school board members have before them at their meetings, prior to the meeting occurring. Posting an agenda without the supporting documents is insufficient for informing the public.

Six school districts post their agendas with documents (Ken-Ton, North Tonawanda, Williamsville, Buffalo, Niagara-Wheatfield and Niagara Falls), while four school districts do not post agendas with documents (Lancaster, Lockport, Starpoint and West Seneca). A requirement of open government is making information available to the public. The Open Meetings Law requires that items being discussed at a public meeting are to be made available prior to the meeting and that if an agency maintains a regularly and routinely updated website, such records shall be posted on the website to the extent practicable prior to the meeting. 

Posting of Meeting Minutes

Posting meeting minutes is a basic that must be a greater priority. The Open Meetings Law requires that minutes of a publicly held meeting be available within two weeks of a meeting. While the Open Meetings Law does not require the posting of meeting minutes online, the Coalition for Open Government supports posting minutes within two weeks of a meeting. 

Video Recording of Meetings

The Open Meetings Law requires that the meetings of public bodies to the extent practicable be streamed in real-time and posted on the agencies website within and for a reasonable time after the meeting. 

Five districts do not post video recordings of their meetings online for the public to view at a later date (Niagara-Wheatfield, Lockport, Starpoint, Niagara Falls and West Seneca).

Five school districts post video recordings of their meetings online (Ken-Ton, North Tonawanda, Williamsville, Buffalo and Lancaster)

Opportunity for public to be heard

Citizens should have the opportunity to speak at the beginning of a school board meeting to state their opinion and concerns before officials vote. The Open Meetings Law does not mandate that citizens have an opportunity to speak at a public meeting. 

Despite there not being a legal mandate, all of the school districts allow the public to speak at their meetings. Five districts hear from the public at the beginning of their meeting (Ken-Ton, Williamsville, Buffalo, Lancaster and Niagara Falls) and five districts hear from the public at the end of their meeting (North Tonawanda, Niagara-Wheatfield, Lancaster, Starpoint and West Seneca). 

Executive Sessions

The Open Meetings Law sets forth specific reasons for holding an executive session. The New York State Committee on Open Government created by the state legislature provides advice, opinions and recommendations regarding the Open Meetings Law. The Committee on Open Government opinions and court decisions have determined that a public body must identify the subject matter being discussed in an executive session with some degree of particularity. Merely reciting the language in the law is insufficient. The motion to conduct an executive session must be sufficiently detailed to enable the public to ascertain whether there is a proper basis for entry into the closed session. 

General reasons do not inform the public as to what particular legal matter or personnel matter is being discussed behind closed doors. The word “personnel” is not stated in the Open Meetings Law, yet it is cited by governmental boards. 

While litigation is a common reason for holding an executive session, it’s noteworthy that court decisions have held that the purpose of discussing pending litigation privately is so that litigation strategy can be discussed without disclosing it to an adversary. 

An update on the status of a legal proceeding does not rise to the level of a discussion regarding strategy and therefore would not be an appropriate basis for an executive session.

Overall, the districts reviewed held 45 executive sessions during the period studied, with 18 done in accordance to the Open Meetings Law in the coalition’s opinion. 

The average number of executive sessions held for the six months reviewed were five. Niagara-Wheatfield held the most executive sessions with nine. Starpoint did four out of five of their executive sessions correctly, which was the best score.

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