When The Buffalo News prepared to publish a short story Monday night indicating that the Buffalo School Board apparently violated the state's Open Meetings Law by holding a two-hour board budget meeting without informing the public, the district pushed back.
As we noted in our brief story, board members came together to both receive information about the 2014-15 budget and to ask for board feedback on a variety of budget issues, including prospective cuts to personnel and district services. We described the meeting as an "informal work session." Based on board member descriptions, it actually sounded a lot like a public Finance and Operations Committee meeting.
But spokeswoman Elena Cala and board president Barbara Nevergold described the meeting, which six of nine board members attended, as an "informational workshop" that was meant to convey information, not conduct official business. Subsequently, Cala sent News education reporters an email today in which she referenced a written advisory opinion by Robert Freeman, head of the NYS Committee on Open Government.
That letter, written by Freeman in 1993 in response to a question about an annual "Education Day" hosted by the State Board of Nursing, stated in part: If there is an intent that a majority of a public body convene for the purpose of conducting public business, such a gathering would, in my opinion, constitute a meeting subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law. However, if there is no intent that a majority of public body will gather for purpose of conducting public business, collectively, as a body, but rather for the purpose of gaining education and training, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would be applicable.
So I called Freeman and asked for clarification. Here's what he told me this afternoon about Monday morning's meeting:
"This is clearly part of a deliberative process, as opposed to a program during which board members from a variety of locations are present to become educated, not with respect to issues particular to their districts, but rather for the purposes of receiving general knowledge.
"In contrast, the situation that you described clearly involves a deliberative process focusing upon issues that are particular to this Board of Education. I believe that the board’s position reflect a misinterpretation of an opinion involving gatherings that are clearly different."
His bottom line: "In this case, we’re talking about money, and money that affects children directly. What could be more significant to the public than a meeting of this nature?"
It appears some district leaders miss the old days when board members deliberately met in small groups of four members or fewer to deliberately circumvent the Open Meetings Law. Their lawyer informed them those meetings were illegal. So was Monday's, according to Freeman.
"In my opinion it is clear that the gathering is fully subject to the Open Meetings Law and that notice of the time and place was required," he said. "It is easy to comply with the notice provisions in the Open Meetings Law. The news media must be notified, perhaps by phone, by email, by fax. Notice must be posted in its usual location, and whenever possible, notice must be given online."
-- Sandra Tan