Times Union | April 25, 2020 | Becca Carballo
An Albany-based nonprofit that provides legal services to those challenging government called out the town of Colonie in a news release Thursday for allegedly breaking public meetings law.
Earlier this month, Colonie was supposed to have its first Town Board meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was to be streamed online. But plans changed after a tree knocked out power lines, causing an outage in certain parts of town.
Town officials proceeded with the meeting and posted the minutes online the next day. However, the Government Justice Center said that wasn’t enough. The town must make meetings accessible to the public by audio or video since people cannot physically attend meetings during the pandemic, according to an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. All local governments have had to figure out how to hold public meetings as the pandemic has shut down city, town and village halls.
All actions taken during the Colonie meeting can be ruled void by a court because it was held in violation of public meeting laws, the group alleges.
“The meeting should have been postponed to another date when the Town Board learned it could not provide public access,” wrote Cam Macdonald, Executive Director of the Government Justice Center, in the news release.
Macdonald said during the meeting the board approved a resolution without holding a public hearing, which is in violation of the town law. He said he found on the town website that an agenda session meeting was scheduled for before the Town Board meeting; there is no recording online for such a meeting.
Town Supervisor Paula Mahan told the Times Union earlier this month that due to the pandemic, there were no plans to have the agenda session meeting.
“The Town Board received agenda items to review and provide any comments they have, and had plenty of time to do that,” Mahan said a few hours before the April 9 Town Board meeting.
The Government Justice Center said open meetings laws require that meetings must be made available by video or audio and must also be recorded and later transcribed.
Town attorney Michael Magguilli wrote the Times Union a lengthy email in response, saying the Town Board figured out at the end of the meeting that it did not broadcast, but decided to not reschedule the actions of the meeting — saying the town did not want to have to reschedule business such as, “resolutions for Colonie’s Volunteer Fireman establishing their rights to benefits under the Town’s Service Award Program and resolutions for medical supplies for our EMS Department.”
“In short, when we balanced these public safety issues against a technical violation of the Open Meetings Law, the Mahan Administration chose public safety,” Magguilli wrote.
The citizens group SAVE Colonie, which follows town government matters and development proposals, notified the Government Justice Center about its concerns.
“In this time of uncertainty it is crucial for the public to have complete access to the government’s decision making processes,” wrote Macdonald. “These blatant violations of Open Meetings Law and the Governor’s Executive Order are unacceptable.”
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