BATAVIA — The City of Batavia was given a grade of “B” for its compliance of open meetings law and posting of meeting minutes by an open government group.
The New York Coalition for Open Government reviewed the websites of 20 towns and cities across the state regarding meetings during the month of June. The report focused on local governments with a population between 10,000 and 32,000 people.
The City of Batavia achieved three of the four criteria examined for the report, but were cited for not posting meeting minutes in a timely manner. The report acknowledged that while the state Open Meetings Law did not require that meeting minutes be posted, most local governments post their meetings online. The Coalition also defined “timely” as posting the minutes of the last meeting before the next meeting is held.
“I don’t think in today’s age, that it’s burdensome to put minutes up before the next meeting,” said Paul Wolf, an attorney and president of the Coalition, said in a virtual press conference on July 10.
The majority of governments surveyed, 11 of the 20, received the same grade as Batavia.
At the time the Coalition reviewed the City of Batavia website, on July 7, minutes had not been posted since April 27.
Interim City Manager Rachael J. Tabelski, in an interview the day of the report’s release, acknowledged the city was behind in posting its minutes. Tabelski, after an inquiry by The Daily News about the minutes, had the three missing May meetings posted the afternoon of the report’s release. Tabelski cited the reduced workforce in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic for the oversight.
Typically, she said, minutes are posted after being reviewed by City Council. That means, the June meeting minutes would be approved at Council’s July meeting, which was July 13, and then posted to the website. As of Tuesday evening, the minutes for June had not yet been posted.
The Coalition is advocating for an amendment to State Open Meeting Law that would require meeting minutes be posted online within two weeks of a meeting occurring.
“It’s not hard to scan and post,” Wolf said. “A lot of local governments are weeks and months behind.”
The law does require minutes to be available within two weeks if someone requests them, Wolf said.
“It does not make sense in today’s electronic age that New York requires live streaming meetings, posting recordings of meetings, but does not mandate the posting of meeting minutes,” the report said. “Even without a legal mandate in place, local governments should strive to have draft minutes posted before their next meeting occurs.”
In addition to the meeting minutes, the report checked to see if all meeting documents are posted online prior to the meeting, if meetings were being livestreamed on the local government’s website, and if meeting videos or audio recordings are posted on the website after the meeting.
The City of Batavia was given credit for the other three categories, with videos available through Facebook and a third party’s YouTube channel that was not maintained by the city. The report said “it would be helpful if the City website directed people to where videos can be seen or provided a link to the Facebook/YouTube page.”
Tabelski acknowledged that it might not be easy to find videos of city meetings, which are also broadcast on a government access cable channel.
Wolf noted that before the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on in-person government meetings, few governments were livestreaming or posting despite the legal requirements. In that regard, he said, the pandemic was good timing.
“Livestreaming meetings are a great way to inform the public,” Wolf said. “Also, the requirement to post videos is a great resource” for the public.
“It’s a nice way to bring the meeting to the public and engage the public,” he said. “I hope that continues.”
For the City of Batavia, the livestreaming may not continue, Tabelski said.
“We don’t have a good means to continue livestreaming without an investment in equipment and personnel,” Tabelski said.
An executive order required the city to livestream its meetings when those meetings were being conducted remotely and unavailable for public attendance. Public council meetings resumed this week with limited seating capacity, social distancing and a requirement to wear face masks.
Tabelski noted that social distancing by Council members and the mask requirement would present challenges for streaming in order to have all council members visible on screen and have audio of a sufficient quality.
Three governments — Geneva, the city of Plattsburgh and Rotterdam — were awarded grades of an ‘A,’ for meeting all four criteria. The town of Lockport received an ‘F,’ for failing to meet any of the selected criteria.
Other communities included in the report were the town of Orchard Park, Jamestown, Olean, Elmira, Ithaca, Cortland, Auburn, Ogdensburg, Amsterdam, Rome, Saratoga Springs, Rotterdam, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Glen Cove and Riverhead.
The New York Coalition for Open Government describes itself as a non-partisan, charitable organization that values open government and freedom of information.
The Coalition should not be confused with the New York State Committee on Open Government, which is a state agency responsible for overseeing and advising government officials and citizens with regard to Open Meetings, Freedom of Information, and Personal Privacy Protection laws.
The Coalition’s report is its second statewide review. The Coalition, which began as the regionally-focused Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, has recently sought to expand its reach.
“We’re not here to attack or criticize,” Wolf said. “Our goal is to educate and bring about change.”