MAKE OYSTER BAY TOWN BOARD MEETINGS TRULY PUBLIC
January 4, 2015 -- The village board or town 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 unfettered access to his local representatives - 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.
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, by far and without a doubt, the most inaccessible, with meetings held at times that make attendance by the average citizen virtually impossible, and records of previous meetings difficult to acquire.
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.
Additionally, 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 and inexcusably, the 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. 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.
Considering that village boards, town boards, and school boards across Long Island, in the name of transparency, maintain records of past meetings on their official websites, hold meetings in the evenings, and that many of those boards video record or live-stream them, making them accessible to virtually all citizens, there is absolutely no reason why the elected representatives on the Oyster Bay Town Board cannot do the same. Its time for that to change. Whether its a vote to approve an 8.8% property tax hike, 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 be there - to ask questions, to comment, and to hear their elected representatives' views. Transparency is essential to good government - but transparency cannot exist without accessibility.
providing even the home-bound the ability to get to better know their representatives' positions and the issues confronting their towns.
There's a myth that if a professor doesn't show up to class within 15 minutes of its scheduled start time, the students can leave. Apparently, the Oyster Bay Town Board has a similar rule. With not a single one of the township's 293,000 residents in attendance, the Board adjourned its monthly meeting 12 minutes after its 10 am start. The fact that no one was there to witness the board doing the people's business should not be a surprise to anyone.