Ogdensburg City Council circumvents state Open Meetings Law

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OGDENSBURG — A closed-door meeting of Ogdensburg City Council to talk about staffing at the municipal Police Department violated the state’s Open Meetings Law, according to Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

The council met Tuesday and went into executive session — a private meeting from which the public and press are barred — to discuss “matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed.”

City Manager Sarah Purdy said the private meeting was needed to discuss staffing at the city Police Department.

No formal action was taken after the closed-door session.

Ms. Purdy disagreed with a reporter’s assertion that the discussion should have taken place publicly with the media present.

Mr. Freeman, who heads the Committee on Open Government in Albany, said the press was right to challenge the Ogdensburg council’s decision to talk about police staffing out of public earshot. He said the Open Meetings Law exception — for the purpose of discussing matters that will imperil public safety if disclosed — was not designed for such general topics as department staffing.

“I don’t think it’s even close,” Mr. Freeman said. “The exception involving imperilling public safety cannot be used effectively, or appropriately, to discuss staffing levels within a police department, particularly a police department in a community the size of Ogdensburg.”

Mr. Freeman said that in his view, public discussion of police and fire protection, including how a department is staffed, is in the best interest of a community and its taxpayers.

“If anything, the nature of a discussion about the police department, in my mind, is likely to enhance public safety,” Mr. Freeman said. “The public has a need to know that there is adequate protection, in both contexts, whether it’s police or fire. By knowing, the public would have an ability to express a point of view, and the public would have the capacity to influence how public monies are being allocated.”

The state Open Meetings Law is designed to ensure that public bodies conduct business in a transparent manner. There are eight commonly used criteria for leaving public session and going into executive session behind closed doors, according to Mr. Freeman.

They are:

Imperil public safety — would be unethical to require public discussion if safety would be compromised.

Identifying a law-enforcement agent or informant.

Prosecution of a criminal offense.

Proposed, pending or current litigation — protection against disclosure of litigation strategy.

Collective bargaining negotiations — would disadvantage taxpayers to require government to publicly discuss negotiation strategy.

The personnel exception, used to discuss employment, medical, credit or health history or promotion, demotion or firing of a “particular person.”

Preparation, grading or administration of examinations.

Acquisition or sale of real property or securities.

Mr. Freeman said the Ogdensburg council’s choice to go behind closed doors to talk about police staffing, under the argument that to do otherwise would endanger public safety, was ill advised.

“To talk about our needs in terms of staffing the police department, or our needs in terms of offering services, those are basic public policy questions,” Mr. Freeman said.

In an email Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Purdy attempted to justify the closed-door session on Tuesday, and admitted that her reason for going into executive session was improper.

However, she argued that in her view the meeting could still be closed to the public — for other reasons.

“The discussion at last night’s meeting involved allocation of staff for specific law enforcement purposes,” Ms. Purdy wrote. “Because this is not in and of itself collective bargaining, I did not think I could state collective bargaining as the reason for the executive session. But upon further review, because the allocation of staff for the specific law enforcement purposes impacts the terms of the existing collective bargaining agreement, I should have stated collective bargaining as the reason for the executive session discussion instead of stating matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed.”

Ms. Purdy said a previous closed-door session, held May 14, was held under the public-safety exception. She said that meeting, too, could have been considered collective bargaining.

“Similarly, the reason for the executive session at the May 14 City Council meeting should have been collective bargaining because it involved allocation of staff in the Fire Department that impacts the terms of the existing collective bargaining agreement,” she said. “My error in both instances was to interpret the stated reason of collective bargaining as only available when collective bargaining is under way.”

However, the collective bargaining exemption applies to active negotiations, which was not the topic of this discussion.

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