Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel said the Town Board did nothing wrong when, at its Jan. 21 meeting, it took action on items not listed on the publicly released agenda, but said the board will make changes in the interest of transparency.
At that meeting, the board considered several items not listed on the agenda distributed to the public. They included hiring a part-time employee for the receiver of taxes department, partnering with the village to form an advisory board for transportation planning, installation of a stop sign and allowing employees of the water and sewer department to carry over personal time.
The following week, 2013 supervisor candidate and current Conservative Party vice chair Gaetana Ciarlante wrote a letter to the editor accusing the board of violating the state open meetings law. Helsmoortel responded at the Feb. 4 meeting, saying the Department of State, Association of Towns and Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert Freeman all agreed the town could add items to the agenda at any time, including during meetings.
“The procedure that we followed, we’ve been following for almost 14 years and we were under the impression that we were doing it properly,” Helsmoortel said at the Feb. 5 meeting.
“There were no secrets that we tried to do two weeks ago,” he said. “We presented motions late, which we have a right to do.”
Helsmoortel said from now on, the board would discuss any last-minute additions at the start of the meeting, only including them by a unanimous vote of the board. While this means the board will still include resolutions not made public prior to the meeting, it will avoid meeting attendees being caught by surprise as the board considers items not listed on the public agenda.
“So in the future, when we’re adding something to an agenda last-minute, which we legally can do, we will announce it during supervisor’s comments and probably take a vote of the Town Board to move it forward,” Helsmoortel said. “And it would have to be a unanimous vote to move it forward.”
Until now, Helsmoortel would informally poll board members during the pre-board meetings. Even then, items would only be added if all five agreed.
“That’s always been the case, but now we’ll do it publicly so that the public knows that we’re moving something forward and it’s a unanimous vote to move it forward.”
What was added and why
One added item, to hire Donna Shultis as a full-time deputy receiver of taxes at $13 per hour, was necessary because tax bills were due and the office needed more personnel to process them, Helsmoortel said.
A resolution to install a stop sign at the intersection of Band Camp Road and Old Route 212 was added because the required public hearing had just happened earlier that night, he said.
A resolution to form the Complete Streets Policy and Transportation Advisory Council was added because the village had already formed its counterpart and the town needed to get moving on projects such as sidewalks to provide safer routes to schools, said Councilwoman Leeanne Thornton.
“It was time to move forward. There was no reason not to move it forward,” Thornton said.
Two resolutions to allow Water and Sewer Department employees to carry over personal time were necessary because the employees hadn’t realized they had time left over from last year, Helsmoortel said.
Criticism and second opinion
Helsmoortel said the open meetings law does not apply in this case. He cited a letter from Robert Freeman from the Committee on Open Government to Councilman James Bruno. Freeman wrote:
“The Open Meetings Law is silent with respect to agendas or the introduction of resolutions. If the board wants to abide by its agenda it may do so. However, if it wants to amend or even ignore an agenda, that too, is its choice. In short, there is no provision of law of which I am aware that would preclude the board from adding resolutions to its agenda or introducing resolutions during a meeting.”
According to Freeman, the town may adopt its own policy for following agendas as long as it doesn’t violate the Open Meetings Law and the board consistently follows it.
“As a practice we don’t intend to add last-minute motions,” Deputy Supervisor Fred Costello said. “We’ll try to be more transparent about it.”
The board will discuss a new policy at the next board meeting on Feb. 18.