January 7, 2015 -- It should be no surprise that virtually no one was there to witness Tuesday morning's Oyster Bay Town Board meeting that lasted all of 12 minutes. Yes, the agenda was thin with only 25 resolutions to consider. However, of all local governments that have jurisdiction over areas of the north shore of Long Island from the Queens line through western Suffolk County, the Oyster Bay Town Board is unquestionably the most inaccessible, with meetings held at times that make attendance by the average citizen virtually impossible, and records of previous meetings frustratingly difficult to obtain - especially in this digital age.
The town or village board meeting is the only venue in our political system that enables the ordinary citizen to be directly in touch with his or her local elected officials on a regular basis. Whereas e-mails, letters, and even phone calls can be ignored, the village or town board meeting is the one place where the ordinary citizen, as of right, has direct access - to speak, be heard and be responded to, and the right to hear, unfiltered, those officials' views on public policy. But to exercise those rights, one must also have the opportunity.
Within the Northwordnews coverage area, there are three village governments - Old Brookville, Roslyn Harbor, and Sea Cliff. Each holds its meetings in the evening - Old Brookville at 6:30 pm and the other two at 7 pm; the Glen Cove City Council holds its meetings at 8 pm. At the town level, Oyster Bay's neighbor to the west, North Hempstead, holds its meetings at 7:30 pm; and to the east, Huntington alternates its meetings between 7 pm and 2 pm. The reason for evening meetings is obvious- it not only gives elected officials, most of whom have "day jobs," the opportunity to attend and give their full attention to civic matters without having to "rush back to work," but also, of course, enables more of the public to attend.
Additionally, to accommodate residents who are unable to be there, the two neighboring towns and the city of Glen Cove live-stream their meetings and the Town of Huntington maintains a video archive of its past meetings that is coordinated with the written agenda, allowing viewers to be brought to the desired segment of the meeting by simply clicking on an agenda item.
As for the Oyster Bay Town Board, which for those in our area living outside of incorporated villages is the most local level of government, all of its meetings, with the exception of one budget hearing, are held at 10:00 am, making those "public"meetings inaccessible to the vast majority of working adults. Although clearly having the ability to do so, as is evident from the many video recordings of other events posted on its website, the Town Board could live-stream or videotape its meetings and post them, but apparently chooses not to do so. This is not exactly a new or costly technology.
Inexplicably, Oyster Bay Town Board posts neither past agendas, nor approved minutes or votes on resolutions from past meetings on its website. To gain access to those records, the Town website instructs residents to submit a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request - to which the Town Clerk's Office must respond within 20 business days. That request can only be submitted by regular mail or in person. Even New York State allows FOIL requests to be submitted via e-mail. As for North Hempstead, Huntington, the Village of Sea Cliff or the North Shore School District, one can go to their respective websites and, with a single click, access agendas as well as approved minutes or votes on resolutions from past meetings going back years.
There is absolutely no reason for the elected representatives on the Oyster Bay Town Board not to adopt the same practices used by towns, villages and school districts across Long Island to make "doing the people's business" more accessible and transparent to the people. Whether its a vote to approve an 8.8% property tax hike or a $30 million bond sale to make payroll, a discussion of a proposed land sale to a mall developer, or a hearing to consider a change in zoning, the public ought not only have the right to be there, but also the opportunity - to ask questions, to comment, and to hear their elected representatives' views and to witness their votes. Yes - there are drawbacks. With the people watching, the meetings might be longer than 12 minutes. . . but that's democracy.