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Closed-door meeting may have violated state open meeting law

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MASSENA - Village and town officials did not meet the legal requirements to block the public from its discussions on finding alternatives to for maintenance work in the Highland Road area, according to an opinion from the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

Supervisor Joseph D. Gray told members of the press the meeting would go into executive session - closing off members of the public and press - because they would discussing contract negotiations and possible litigation. Both are exemptions to the state’s Open Meetings Law.

But Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s open government committee, said that under these circumstances the town and village were not legally justified in holding an executive session. Mr. Freeman said contract negotiations only apply to collective bargaining with town or village employees and to property acquisitions in which public opinion would affect the values of the property.

The legal action exemption, Mr. Freeman said, can only be used to not divulge information to an opposing party.

When reached for comment after the closed-door meeting, Mr. Gray stood by his position, saying the discussions could have resulted in the town acquiring the property near Highland Road into its water district. He also believes the executive session helped prevent possible legal action between the any two of the three involved parties: the town, village, and the ratepayers near Highland Road.

“(In executive session) the parties involved can compares notes, figures and have a very frank discussion that you cannot have in open session,” he said.

Mr. Gray believes a closed meeting, with the intent of avoiding legal action, is in the best interest of the town and village.

“Mr. Freeman might say that’s (an illegitimate reason to hold executive session); I’ll have to disagree,” he said. “If we can hold these discussions in closed session, and save the town and village tens of thousands in legal fees, then I trust the community can understand why executive session was necessary.”

Mayor James F. Hidy stood by Mr. Gray’s position, but did not provide further comment on the village Board of Trustees’ decision to go into executive session.

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