State Law ‘Silent’ On Issue –
So Stick To What Law Does Say
The end of what is, at best, an anomaly, may be in sight.
County Rep. Meg Kennedy, C-Mount Vision, says she plans to ask the Administration Committee she chairs to remove two extralegal
clauses from a policy it passed last month: “Use of Photographic Equipment and Recording Devices at County Meetings.”
The complete policy appears in the box below this editorial. The purported goal, “to allow meetings to be conducted in an orderly manner,” is unobjectionable, although no incident has occurred to spur that.
However, one provision, requiring photographers and videographers to “sign in” – to register with the government, Soviet style – is anathema to the press, and will be to the general public, too, as citizens increasingly use iPhones to record parts of meetings they find significant.
A second provision, unilateral “exclusion from the meeting at the discretion of the chair,” with no appeal or due process of any kind, is likewise worthy of Fidel Castro. Off with their cabezas!
Hometown Oneonta, The Freeman’s Journal and www.AllOTSEGO.com raised these concerns with Robert Freeman, executive director, state Committee on Open Government, an arm of the New York Department of State, and he also concluded the policy is flawed. His full statement also appears below.
County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, at the Feb. 6 meeting of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, defended the policy she developed. But when asked about the two objectionable clauses, replied, “The law is silent on this.”
Put another way, the county attorney, whom the board depends on to provide accurate legal guidance, came up with two limitations on the freedoms of press and public that are not enabled in a guiding statute, the state Freedom of Information Act, on the books since 1977.
By doing so, she also may have opened the county board to financial liability: In an amendment signed into law in December 2017, the county would have to pay legal fees if a challenge “substantially prevailed,” which Freeman’s opinion suggests is possible.
And the Coccoma Protocol, if you will, is already having a negative effect on news coverage.
As a public service, AllOTSEGO.com has been videotaping monthly county board meetings for more than two years now, but board chair Dave Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, said the videographer would probably have to register, so the Feb. 6 meeting went unrecorded.
Kennedy’s Administration Committee meets at 9 a.m. Friday, Feb. 22.
The question it must answer: Who should control news coverage of the county board and the $110 million government it controls? Independent news outlets and citizen watchdogs, or the county board itself?
The answer’s clear.
As can happen, one anomaly can draw attention to others.
At some point, the 14-member county board surrendered its policy-making responsibilities to its six-member Administration Committee.
In this case, when “Admin” met Jan. 29, the county attorney characterized “Use of Photographic Equipment and Recording Devices at County Meetings” as a routine matter, according to Kennedy. Five of the six committee members in attendance – County Rep. Andrew Stammel, D-Oneonta, had departed – passed it routinely, and it immediately became county board policy.
Look at the county board’s makeup: Four reps are in their first term; another five in their second terms. Most, you can be sure, were unaware the authority of their elective offices had been surrendered to a committee at some time in the past for forgotten reasons.
The full board should change the Rules of Order and take its authority back. If the 14 are to be governed by a policy, it should be presented as a resolution and be voted on by the
Even the Administration Committee itself – Kennedy, Stammel and county Reps. Ed Frazier, Gary Koutnik, Keith McCarty and Peter Oberacker – no doubt agrees with that.
A final thought: Robert Freeman is available to give seminars on the FoI Act and open meetings. The county board should invite in him in to do one here. After all, you have to know the law to follow it.
The county attorney should be there, too.