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Putting some sunshine on the sunshine laws

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In 1976, the state Legislature enacted Public Officers Law Articles 6 and 7, the so-called “sunshine laws” that open meetings and official documents of the state's public bodies to the world. The Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law, as they have come to be known, recognize that the citizens of this state have a right to know what their many levels of government are doing, how they're doing it and what it means to them.

Sadly, 35 years on, it is still a struggle to get government — especially local government — to comply with the laws. I think it's a fair bet that within any given week in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, there will be at least one and sometimes many instances in which local officials break one or more sections of Public Officers Law. Take Tuesday night, for example.

On Tuesday, the Adams village Board of Trustees closed their meeting to discuss plans for the proposed fire hall expansion. Mayor Patricia Sweetland said she was ejecting the public because the board was going to be discussing “figures” — estimates of the new structure's cost — and that could affect the bidding process. It was a case of the mayor deciding she would rewrite the law to suit her own particular (perhaps I should say peculiar) beliefs.

First, I can go through the Times archives in the past six months and pull up six to 10 stories about various project bids that have come in surprisingly under the estimated cost. Likewise, I can go back further into the archives, when construction was booming and there were more jobs out there than companies to do them, and find scores of projects that came in well over the cost estimate. It is the beauty of the bidding process that it compels the lowest price under the economic conditions of the time that it is initiated. Right now, contractors are begging for work and prices are low, low, low. The estimates that Bernier, Carr & Associates, Sterns & Wheeler, Barton and Loguidice or any other engineering or architectural firm provide serve only to alert the municipality and the public to the potential cost. The marketplace will take care of the rest. This alone makes the mayor's decision inane.

Beyond that, however, the mayor and the trustees violated their obligation to the public by breaking state law. This is not a law that, if you break it, you're going to jail. From time to time, I wistfully rue that. But I had a discussion Tuesday with Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, and things may be changing. The “teeth” in the law have just been sharpened, and judges now have a new tool to use to deal with persistent violators of the sunshine laws. Now, in addition to being able to annul action taken as a direct result of an illegally closed meeting, and being able to assess the plaintiff's court costs to the municipality or agency, the courts can force these boards and councils to attend a public training course given by staff of the Committee on Open Government.

The first instance of this will happen in Ithaca sometime in the next 60 days. Mr. Freeman, who has been a towering force in the efforts to open up government bodies in this state for more than 30 years, will hold a public training session for the New Roots Charter School, which was found to be a persistent and flagrant violator of both the open meetings and freedom of information laws.

“I'm going to make sure it is a circus. It will be completely open, and it will open the issue for all to see. I doubt these sessions will be something a board looks forward to participating in,” Mr. Freeman said. But, he noted, education is much more beneficial than fining a town or village or school district, since the fines would actually be levied against the taxpayers the law is trying to protect.

And I suppose he's right. The unfortunate abandonment of the stocks in the late 1600s eliminated my preferred treatment of sunshine law violators, and Catholic schools notwithstanding, sharply rapping the offenders' knuckles would be an unwieldy affair. But I truly look forward to Bob Freeman's first trip to the north country for a “public education” session. It's long overdue.

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