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Committee on Open Government answers more questions about executive session, public meetings

Follow-up opinions from Committee on Open Government question aspects of executive session

By Josh Durso

Last week, the Seneca County Board of Supervisors made headlines after entering into an executive session without enough votes to do so. The story prompted to reach out to Kristin O’Neill, of the Committee on Open Government for more information.

O’Neill serves as assistant director of the committee, which is part of the Department of State. The opinion issued on Friday following Thursday’s meeting and executive session was that due to four absences on the Board – a majority vote was not reached when the supervisors moved to enter executive session to hear Earl Martin’s testimony about the circumstances playing out at the former Seneca Army Depot.

In the initial opinion issued by the Committee on Open Government, O’Neill noted that eight supervisors needed to be present for the meeting to have a quorum. They met that standard, even though four supervisors were absent.

However, even with four supervisors absent, any motion, resolution, or action taken by the Board needed to pass with a ‘majority of the whole’. That means, at minimum – for any measure to pass – a majority of the full-board was necessary.

Either eight votes out of the 14-board membership, or a majority of the total weighted votes. In other words, even though there were four supervisors missing – the weighted vote count would have to be comprised of a majority of the 750 available votes.

In follow-up opinion, O’Neill explained that the same rule applies to standing committees – if one or two members are absent.

“The guidance I provided relates to all meetings of public bodies including committees or subcommittees that are made up solely of members of the larger public body,” she explained. “A committee of five would need three members present and would need three members to pass any motion, proposal, or resolution.”

Any action taken by a committee or governing body under these circumstances would be subject to legal appeal – if they were forwarded without the necessary votes.

As for the question as to whether supervisors are legally bound to remain silent after an executive session – O’Neill’s opinion leaves wiggle room.

“There is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that requires that the content of executive session discussions be confidential,” she explained. “However, there is a reason why executive sessions are permitted and why it would likely be wise and in the County’s best interest for the Supervisor’s to refrain from discussing the content of executive sessions.”

The opinions issued by the Committee on Open Government showcase the importance of adherence to the legal clauses for entering executive session. If a Board goes into a closed-door session on ‘too vague’ a reason, then questions are bound to surface about whether its members are actually forced to maintain silence about those discussions.

O’Neill also explained that meeting minutes from within an executive session would not be necessary – unless action was taken afterward. This question arose as it related to the tracking of these closed door sessions.

Read the original story here about the Board of Supervisors’ session, which failed to reach legal minimum standard to enter executive session.

Josh Durso is a lifelong resident of the Finger Lakes. When not overseeing the newsroom he’s hosting Inside the FLX: A weekly program on FL1 Radio. Check out the podcast by clicking here, or by visiting Follow him on Twitter at @FLXJosh, or say hello by clicking here.

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