At a recent board meeting, I ended up sitting in the audience with the general public, rather than up alongside the board table, where I usually sit.
I could barely hear what was going on.
Bits and pieces of conversations from the board table made their way back to where I was sitting, and I could generally decipher the gist of what was going on. But I certainly couldn't follow the meeting word for word.
Hannya Boulos of Buffalo ReformED, who attends many of the meetings, told me she brings her laptop so she can follow my live blog of the meetings because she can't hear what's going on -- when she's sitting about 15 feet from the board.
That's not how it's supposed to be.
The whole point of public meetings is so that the public can hear what's happening.
"The [open meetings] law says the public has the right to attend observe and listen -- listen -- to the proceedings," said Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government.
When you watch board meetings on TV or in person, you might notice the row of microphones down the middle of the table.
Taxpayers apparently spent the money to have them installed at some point.
Too bad the board doesn't use them.
Here's a portion of the Open Meetings Law:
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. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.
While there's nothing specific in the state's Open Meetings Law that directly addresses the question of the public being able to hear what's going on, it's clear that the public has a right to hear the deliberations of their elected officials, Freeman said.
"Numerous times, the courts have found government agencies have to carry out their functions in ways that are reasonable," Freeman said. "If the board has microphones and does not use them, and it is clear people cannot hear the proceedings, that would be unreasonable."
- Mary Pasciak