Report suggests government executive sessions done improperly, almost all of the time

Oct 27, 2017

A newly-issued report suggests that when local governments go into executive sessions, they are most times not fully complying with a state law concerning open government.

At issue is the simple disclosure of the topic to be discussed behind closed doors. Governments and school boards have the legal right to meet privately over issues including litigation and union contract negotiations. But according to the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, those same governments and boards are obligated under the state's Open Meeting laws to reveal the topic to be discussed before entering an executive session.

The Buffalo Common Council holds a recent meeting in City Hall. The government body is one of a handful that has not recently discussed business in executive session. But a newly-released report suggests many local municipal boards and councils, when they discuss business behind closed doors, are not fully complying with the New York State Open Meeting law by failing to simply disclose what topic they'll speak of in executive session.
Credit WBFO file photo

"You should disclose 'we're going to go into executive session to discuss Smith vs. the Town of Hamburg (for example),'" said Paul Wolf, president of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. "You need to disclose what it is you're going to discuss, not just generally 'litigation.'"

The Coalition studied 16 governments in Erie and Niagara Counties, eight in each county, over a six-month period. According to their report, the governments on 76 out of 78 occasions failed to disclose what it was they would be discussing in executive session.

"They are being done incorrectly, as far as disclosing to the public what is being discussed," Wolf said. 

The report suggests smaller town governments hold the most executive sessions, led by the Towns of Lewiston, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda and Lockport. 

Within the six months the study was conducted, the Buffalo Common Council, Niagara Falls City Council, Erie County Legislature and City of Lockport and City of North Tonawanda councils did not go into executive sessions.

The question was raised: how may one hold a government more accountable? Wolf says in recent years the Open Meeting law has been changed twice in New York State. One of the changes gives members of the public the ability to see all legal fees covered if their lawsuit proves successful. The other change gives courts the ability to require municipal governments undergo training to ensure compliance.

"We're going to come back and take a look at this in the future," Wolf said. "If we don't see that progress has been made, we certainly do have the avenue of filing litigation, if need be, to hold some of these governments accountable."