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Coalition cries foul about private negotiations on state Open Meeting Law changes

The New York State Legislature building in Albany
File Photo

While New York may have a new governor, its legislature operates the old way — at least that's the argument from the New York Coalition for Open Government.

Gov. Kathy Hochul officially called state legislators back for a special session late on Tuesday for a Wednesday meeting.

Coalition President Paul Wolf said legislators showed up on time, at noon, but bills weren't published for members to read.

"Filled with text written down and not provided to them until 2 o'clock. Neither legislators or the public had any idea of the substance of what was being voted on and then shortly after written documents were provided, voting started," he said.

Among the issues decided were changes to the state's Open Meetings Law. Lawmakers extended virtual meetings while not requiring parallel public meetings.

Wolf said his group sees the changes as crucial, because they weakened emergency restrictions that required access to public meetings. He said the provisions of the bill legislators approved also were kept secret, with private negotiations.

"Governor's prior emergency order required that meeting videos be posted online after the meeting. This legislation doesn't require that," Wolf said. "There should be something in the legislation that allows for the public to comment remotely. This legislation doesn't do that."

For decades, the state legislature has been criticized for its arcane and secretive ways, including voting on bills that either hadn't been seen or arrived on legislators' computer terminals just before voting started.

Ten groups are asking for a chance to provide public input on the law changes, arguing there should have been at least a public hearing.

"The irony here is that we're voting on Open Meetings Law legislation, which legislators and the public were kept in the dark about, and the legislation that was passed basically says remote meetings can continue until Jan. 22," Wolf said.

It may create some changes, because not all governments live stream sessions while not allowing the public to attend.

The Erie County Legislature is looking at finally combining the two so the public can attend and others can watch at home, as some governmental bodies like the Buffalo Common Council were doing before the pandemic hit.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.