Open government group says “strategy should be left to the lawyers” after executive session in Seneca County

Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, is always keeping a tab on issues of accountability and transparency and Seneca County is no exception either.

The latest Seneca County Board of Supervisors meeting dealing with the endless Cayuga Nation legal dispute is the exact type of political spectacle that he’s actively searching to publicly comment on and critique.

Wolf, who watched the chaotic session unfold on YouTube from Tuesday, July 13, respects the resolve of all elected officials to engage in a 30-minute debate to decide whether an executive session on the same subject should happen, particularly on the part Lodi Supervisor Kyle Barnhart.

“All too often, these motions are just approved as a matter of course, without any discussion or debate,” Wolf told FingerLakes1.com. “It was refreshing that elected officials question whether there should be an executive session or not; it’s this rare that even occurs.”

However, he’s not happy with the heated debate’s outcome, suggesting that entering executive session is “really unnecessary,” especially if county officials are simply getting an update on a legal matter that has already ended when it comes to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“I don’t see why that can happen in public,” Wolf added.

With no pending litigation at the county level, executive sessions relating to legal matters are intended to specifically “talk strategy,” according to Wolf. 

“And quite honestly, I think the strategy should be left to the lawyers,” he said. “So I would kind of disagree with that.”

In the absence of legal teeth in New York to seek any sort of enforcement through the state’s Attorney General office, citizens are essentially unable to check the power of elected officials and hold them accountable for their actions — except by “embarrassing” them.

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“Oftentimes the only hope we have is by embarrassing elected officials through news articles or reports that we do several times a year,” Wolf said. “Negative publicity seems to sometimes motivate change, which is, you know, unfortunate.”

Aside from public displays of scrutiny, Wolf may still be sending a letter to the county’s board on behalf of his coalition, advising them not only about their conduct and behavior, but also how their explanation behind the motions is “not a good way of making the public aware of what an executive session is for.”

Those lessons may be valuable for county officials to read ahead of tonight’s packed evening, which includes a series of standing committee meetings as well as a special board meeting starting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 27.