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December 20, 2008 - Ray Hall (Archive)
EXECUTIVE SESSIONS-A COMMON FORM OF CENSORSHIP Companion Piece to Last Week
Elected bodies share a common trait; the ruling majority wants to control the flow of information. It does not matter if it is the US Congress, Albany, or right here in Jamestown citizens are deprived of information until the ruling majority finds an auspicious time for releasing what might be embarrassing or controversial information.
Whether Hillary Clinton’s failed effort to create a national health plan behind closed doors or Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with oil executives or Albany’s Troika—the Governor, Speaker and Senate Leader—citizens are deliberately left wanting. Hillary Clinton has admitted that if she had involved more people in her health plan meetings America might have an affordable system for everyone. Can we be sure whether plans were made to thwart environmental reforms or establish energy polices favorable to the oil companies during the clandestine Cheney discussions with energy barons? We may never know what transpired. And how informative would it be if New York’s top officials sat in public sessions and discussed openly how the annual state budget is divided up between so called ”member items” and discretionary spending for the Governor?
Regrettably, local citizens need not trek to Washington or Albany to see our government sequester information. Attend a school board meeting or a Village or Town Board meeting of your choice and chances are good to excellent you will be excluded from important information and often under the filmiest of pretenses. Despite an “Open Meeting Law” and the “Freedom of Information Act” in New York it is very difficult for a citizen to obtain information because New York lawmakers have placed the entire burden upon the individual. A citizen’s request for information can be dragged out for weeks or even months and it is even worse at the Federal level. The only recourse a citizen has to challenge a governmental body is to hire a lawyer to file an “Article 78” proceeding in court to force the governmental body to comply. Only recently the State Legislature, prompted by the news media and a spate of court cases, added a provision to the law that forces the government to pay legal fees but only if the plaintiff prevails. That is the only thing that resembles a penalty and leaves government leaders free to regularly violate the open meetings law with impunity.
To make matters worse there are no penalties and officials know that too well. More than one public official in Jamestown has mockingly told me when I challenged an executive session that even if they were in the wrong that they would go unpunished. The entire concept is analogous to a crime victim forced to pay the police to investigate an assault and to pay for the prosecution with the Judge sending the perpetrator home despite being guilty. The process is so ridiculous that it would be laughable if it were not so serious.
Local government is shrouded in secrecy. When I worked for the County Legislature in the 1980’s Social Services was required to file an annual report with the County Legislature that showed how much money was spent with local vendors and professional providers to care for welfare recipients. The report revealed that a local doctor was paid $250,000 for treating patients using Social Services and his wife, also a physician, was paid $50,000 for her services. A local drug store chain in the county received more than $2,000,000 for dispensing prescriptions.
After a newspaper reporter published the report in a local paper for two consecutive years Social Services stopped filing the report with the Legislature. Although there was nothing improper in the report it was an embarrassment to some local vendors. Government has no such regard for the privacy of tax delinquents and routinely publicizes names and addresses on foreclosures, liens and warrants. The City of Jamestown, by my estimates, has paid out nearly $1,000,000 for sexual harassment lawsuits, but try to find any discussions in the minutes or try to obtain a record of the official settlements. Informants tell me that one woman in the BPU was paid $250,000 and fired for a sexual harassment case. The “street whispers” claim that there are two or three similar cases and there are confirmed reports that the FBI either investigated or inquired about alleged city contract irregularities. Neither an inquiry nor even a full-fledged investigation by the FBI is evidence of criminal wrongdoing and there have been no indictments. Another street whisper suggests the city forgave more than $1,000 in unpaid parking tickets because the meters are inaccurately timed. Citizens ought to know one way or the other.
The Jamestown Board of Public Utilities appears to be a frequent violator of the “Open Meetings Law.” The BPU—actually the City of Jamestown since the BPU is a department of the City—has kept hidden from the citizens the findings of test borings adjacent to the city’s former landfill and once proposed site for a $10,000,000 office complex for the BPU. The matter was discussed thoroughly during “executive sessions”, but it remains a serious matter that citizens have a right to know and understand. The abrupt firing of Wally Hause was discussed in “Executive Session”, but the citizens of Jamestown are left to speculate.
The proposal for a carbon captures power plant sounds like a really good idea, but despite exciting potential it remains an unproven technology. The Linde Company has built a carbon capture plant in Germany and the European Union has put together a consortium of ten or more companies to push the technology forward. Sources tell me that the BPU Board regularly enters into lengthy “Executive Sessions” to discuss the proposed power plant. However, while the carbon capture plant is aggressively advocated for public consumption serious doubts have been expressed in closed meetings. It seems no one knows exactly what will happen if the carbon capture plant does not work. At one closed meeting of the BPU earlier this year the Mayor (the Mayor serves as Board President) flatly told members the carbon capture plant would not go forward without an additional $100,000,000 from an outside source. Fred Larson, a recent Board appointee, ruled out the Federal Government as a funding source unless the State of New York committed a substantial amount of money for the project. The consensus at the meeting was to move forward aggressively to obtain state money and that later spawned more closed discussions to get Governor David Paterson to Jamestown.
Secret arrangements were made to have the Governor speak from a secured location at the BPU without questions from the press or the public. The Governor left as quickly as he arrived but announced $6,000,000 in conditional state support for the carbon captures plant. That makes me question whether his visit was a gimmick designed to trigger a request for Federal Money. I will not believe the $6,000,000 is real until the City gets a check from the State of New York. I remain skeptical. Show me the money.
Not long ago David Leathers, General Manager of the BPU, told the Post Journal that recent public meetings relating to the carbon capture plant was an effort to “get the word out” to the public. Although I have never met Mr. Leathers he seems to be a serious and sincere official. However, I would suggest that if he wants to “get the word out” to inform the public a good first step would be to open up the Board discussions to the people. Let us agree that those engaged in public service are often unappreciated and unfairly criticized, but it should be a requirement of citizenship to question, to probe and insist upon open and free government. Duty demands nothing less.
PS. Thanks to KayFabe for pointing out my inborn propensity for colloquialisms by using “immanent” in place of “imminent.” I would add that as glaring as that might have been it was not my worst offense. For years I used “quite” (as in quite a bit) in place of an eerie “quiet” (stillness) fell across the land. However, I still take pride in knowing how many fish it takes to make a mess.
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