By Matthew Saari

A directive from the state has suspended the open meetings law, meaning residents are now unable to attend public meetings held by villages, towns and schools.

On Friday, March 13, Gov. Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.1 which suspends Article 7 of the Public Officers Law – more commonly known as Open Meetings Law – until at least March 31.

“To the extent necessary to permit any public body to meet and take such actions authorized by the law without permitting in public in-person access to meetings and authorizing such meetings to be held remotely by conference call or similar service,” reads the order.

Open meeting law is what allows local residents the ability to attend government meetings and voice their contributions.

“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy,” explains the state Committee on Open Government website.

As a result of this edict, local towns, villages and schools have put into place policies which will allow the municipality to continue functioning while still affording the public the ability to comment and limiting everyone’s potential exposure to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, Granville Mayor Paul Labas published a notice declaring that “until further notice” all village meetings are closed to the public. Residents can still comment, but must do so via email or mail.

“All comments will be read into the record of the proceedings,” he wrote.

Additionally, Labas wrote, the village has partnered with the Granville Sentinel to live broadcast the meetings to the Sentinel Facebook page for viewing.

The meeting minutes will then be published to the village’s website, “as soon as practicable, most generally within two weeks of the date of the meeting.”

Granville town supervisor Matt Hicks and school superintendent Tom McGurl also confirmed their respective board meetings are closed to the public.

On Thursday, McGurl explained his board will no longer meet in person, instead teleconferencing via Google Hangouts. A number will be posted on the district website for the public to dial in and listen if desired. McGurl noted there is no option for public comment during the meeting proper however if a resident has a question, they can email or call him.

“I’d be happy to answer that,” he said.

Hicks – whose board doesn’t meet again until April 9, one week after the embargo is set to end, was still formulating a plan.

“I can’t say for sure,” Hicks said, adding if the suspension continues into April it is likely only board members, official press and town clerk will be in attendance.

In Whitehall, it’s much the same story with some minor variations.

Both deputy mayor Pat Norton and supervisor John Rozell confirmed their respective meetings have been closed as well, but both declined to partner with Manchester Media for broadcasting coverage.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Rozell.

“With everything changing so fast, we think it’s best for it not to be,” said Norton after discussing the proposal with the other village board members.

Both municipalities are allowing the reporter from their official newspaper to record and report on the meetings.

Whitehall school superintendent Patrick Dee said Thursday the school board will no longer be meeting in person but rather teleconferencing, with the audio of the proceedings being streamed to the district website.

The sole municipality which is moving ahead, business as usual, is Hampton, which is scheduled to meet tonight at 7:30 p.m.

Hampton supervisor Dave O’Brien explained the meeting has been scheduled for some time and the board has important business to discuss, namely what to do now that the state has declared no Vermont EMS agencies cannot operate in New York without proper licensure.

Of note, prior to this Hampton relied on Fair Haven and Poultney EMS for its emergency medical services.

“We’re definitely going to lock the town hall down after tonight,” said O’Brien.

 

 

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