Tools for citizens to take back control of their government
 
Contact Us Transparency in Government Accountability in Government Reforming Government References & Tools Discussion Forum
|| Welcome to Reforming Government

Daniel T. Warren commenced this action to challenge the budget purportedly adopted by the Erie County Legislature. This action initially challenged the adopted budget and proposed sales tax increase on two theories: 1) the vote taken on the proposed budget was not taken as required by the County Charter; 2) the vote on the budget and the proposed sales tax increase was in violation of the Open Meetings Law (Public Officers Law Article 7) and should be declared null and void. The challenges to the budget was resolved in another proceeding commenced at same time by two other plaintiffs. What remains of this action is the Open Meetings Law violations that have been repeatedly violated. The relief currently sought is a declaration the various meetings were held in private by a quarum of the Erie County Legislature since December 8, 2004 and request for a permanent injunction enjoining the defendants from violating the Open Meetings Law.

The Open Meetings or "Sunshine" Law gives the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to the debates and watch the decisionmaking process in action.

A meeting is defined as "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business". Since the law applies to official meetings, chance meetings or social gatherings are not covered by the law. Also, the law is silent with respect to public participation. Therefore, a public body may permit you to speak at open meetings, but is not required to do so.

The Open Meetings Law, passed in 1976 after the crisis of confidence in American politics occasioned by Watergate, was intended--as its very name suggests--to open the decisionmaking process of elected officials to the public while at the same time protecting the ability of the government to carry out its responsibilities ( Sciolino v Ryan , 81 AD2d 475, 477; Matter of Orange County Publications v Council of City of Newburgh , 60 AD2d 409, 418, aff'd 45 NY2d 94; see also, Communications Systems v FCC , 595 F2d 797, 800 [interpreting 5 USC 552b]). Thus, the statute provides generally that "[e]very meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public" (Public Officers Law 103[a]). As the Legislature stated in its preamble to the statute: "It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials" (Public Officers Law 100). Given this explicit declaration, it is clear that the provisions of the Open Meetings Law are to be liberally construed in accordance with the statute's purposes ( Matter of Orange County Publications v Council of City of Newburgh , 45 NY2d 94, 950 [Cooke, J., concurring]; Matter of Holden v Board of Trustees of Cornell University , 80 AD2d 378, 381).

The State Legislature, by enacting the Open Meetings Law, intended to affect the entire decision-making process and not merely formal vote taking as it is the "deliberative process which is at the core of the Open Meetings Law" (Matter of Orange County Publs. v Council of City of Newburgh, 60 A.D.2d 409, 414, affd 45 N.Y.2d 947). Public bodies may not escape public view by claiming that they did not formally convene when, in fact, a meeting took place at which business of public interest was discussed (Matter of Oneonta Star Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v Board of Trustees, 66 A.D.2d 51, 54).

Below is the complaint that was filed initiating this legal challenge: