Original Publication: March 6, 2003, THE JOURNAL NEWS



State's Open Meetings Law
The law provides for closed or "executive" sessions under certain circumstances. The law requires that a public body take several steps to close the meeting:

  • A motion must be made during an open meeting to enter into executive session.

  • The motion must identify the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered.

  • The motion must be carried by a majority vote of the total membership of a public body.

Citing "personnel matters" is not a sufficient ground for going into an executive session. The motion to go into executive session should be more specific. For example, a motion could be made to enter into executive session to discuss "the employment history of a particular person." The person would not have to be identified.

A public body cannot vote to appropriate public monies during a closed session. Therefore, although most public bodies (except school boards in most instances) may vote during a properly convened executive session, any vote to expend public monies must be taken in public. Source: New York state Committee on Open Government. Web site: www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/coogwww.html .

The challenger in the village mayoral election is accusing her opponent of skirting the state's Open Meetings Law by making hiring decisions and discussing other fiscal matters behind closed doors.

Allegra Dengler, a Democratic trustee facing incumbent Mayor Brian Monahan of the Dobbs Ferry Party in the March 18 election, said the village board has in the last two years discussed the sale of the former village library, hired consultants and approved several pay raises in closed sessions of the board without properly revealing those actions in public.

Monahan said each of several matters cited by Dengler was appropriate for discussion in closed sessions, but perhaps should have been included in official minutes.

However, the mayor, who lost the Democratic line to Dengler in a January caucus, said she and the other board members also shared responsibility for approving board minutes. He called the timing of Dengler's accusations "a political stunt."

Dengler, who has campaigned that the village needs to better open the lines of communication between the village and its residents, said she would have raised the issue regardless of her run for mayor. "This is sort of the heart of my frustration with the way things are happening now," she said. She said she had raised the matter privately but held off a public airing in an attempt to be cooperative.

Dengler raised her concerns this week with Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, the state agency that monitors the Open Meetings Law. Based on Dengler's description of at least three instances in which she believed the Dobbs Ferry board violated that law, Freeman told The Journal News there were omissions on behalf of the village in reporting actions taken in closed sessions.

The state Open Meetings Law allows municipal bodies to make decisions to spend money already budgeted in their budgets in closed sessions, according to Dave Traecy, assistant director of the state open government group. Such decisions must, however, be disclosed in official minutes of the closed session and made available to the public within one week, he said.

Dengler cited these incidents, all involving discussions or actions in sessions closed to the public:

  • On Aug. 13, 2002, the board gave pay raises to former village administrator Peggy Slavin and former clerk Pete Carey, who were working as consultants. The board also approved pay raises for Police Chief George Longworth, Building Inspector Bob Fitzsimmons and Public Works Superintendent Jim Dunn.

  • On April 16, 2002, the board voted to spend $1,000 to hire a consultant to assess a piece of property it was considering purchasing.

  • On June 26, 2001, the board discussed the sale of the former village library.

The minutes issued for the sessions included none of the details. Dengler kept private notes. Freeman said the discussion about the library should not have been behind closed doors in the first place, because disclosure of the village's intention to sell the property would not have adversely affected its ultimate sale price.

Monahan yesterday chastised Dengler for raising the matter in a meeting this week with The Journal News Editorial Board.

"I think if you truly want to do the right thing, you do it as soon as possible instead of waiting 1 1/2 weeks before an election," he said.

Dengler said she has discussed her concerns with Monahan and board members in private over the four years she has served as trustee, but repeatedly was assured the board's actions in the closed sessions were legal. "I didn't bring it up (publicly) before because I thought it would be counterproductive," she said.

Maryalice Barnett, who as village administrator and clerk is responsible for keeping minutes, said any omissions were simple oversights and "not meant to deceive anybody."