Mouth That Roars

Bill Liblick has made a name for himself of National TV Talk Shows where he spouted his outspoken views from the front row. Now he offers you his opinion every week in the "MOUTH THAT ROARS" Column in the Sullivan County Post.

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December 17th, 2015

Open Government Needed

When people seek public office they always campaign on a platform of open, honest, and transparent government.

Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson may have run on a platform of openness but as Chairman he has conducted most our county’s planning, business, and decision making behind closed doors.

It would be atrocious if our incoming legislators kept Scott Samuelson as chairman.

Samuelson’s closed door antics have not only angered members of the legislature, but have also caught the attention of those who attend and report on legislative meetings.

Just last week Times Herald Record reporter Andrew Beam called Samuelson out for calling a closed door Executive Session to discuss our 2016 Sullivan County budget.

Beam wrote that “The legislature may have violated the state Open Meetings Law, according to state Committee on Open Government Executive Director Bob Freeman.”

“Legislator Scott Samuelson only cited a personnel issue before going into executive session, but Freeman said they have to be specific about what the personnel issue was.”

Beam noted that Freeman added, “It’s not good enough.”

Indeed, Samuelson has continually held meetings that has not only shutout members of the legislature but has also shut out the public.

The Casino Impact subcommittee meets – but many do not know when they meet or what they discuss because the meetings are conducted behind closed doors.

According to legislator Cora Edwards the subcommittees on Sales Tax Sharing, Redistricting, Transportation, Economic Development, Jail, and Law Enforcement Review Panel have all been held behind closed doors.

If fact, much of our legislative decision making has been held behind closed doors in political caucuses.

Some people say this is done to prevent micromanaging from legislators and the general public and that this is the only way much needed Sullivan County business can get done – But to others like Robert Freeman it’s a violation of public trust and openness.

I am no stranger to such closed door meetings. The new chair of the Sullivan County Democratic Committee is holding meetings with her self- appointed committee members in an effort to exclude Executive Committee members such as myself who are not in her favor from participation.

Over the years, Republican and Democratic members of the legislature have accused one another for not being inclusive.

Legislator Cora Edwards said she has been puzzled “to say the least” by the rules surrounding when meetings are “open” and when they are “closed.”

The Open Meetings Law states that “It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.”

Legislator Cora Edwards has shown herself to be a fierce advocate of ‘participatory’ democracy and open government throughout her 4-year term. She even went so far as to invite Freeman to Sullivan County last year (2014) to address the public’s questions about the Open Meetings Law of New York State.
Freeman made it clear that all meetings are open to the public, except for a narrow list of exemptions, which must be explicitly cited if the Legislature goes into an Executive Session – without the public present.

Every December, any resolution can be submitted at any time by anybody – including members of the public – unlike every other month when resolutions have to be submitted in advance to be included on the legislative agenda.

Last December 18, 2014 Legislator Cindy Geiger submitted a resolution calling for opening up the subcommittee meetings that were held without the public present, and to follow the Open Meetings Law.

Some examples: the Transportation Subcommittee – chaired by Kathy LaBuda; the Casino Impact Committee – chaired by Legislator Jonathan Rois; the Jail Committee chaired by Legislator Kathy LaBuda; the Redistricting Committee chaired by Legislator Kathy LaBuda and the Solid Waste Committee – chaired by Kathy La Buda.

Both Legislators Jonathan Rouis and Kathy LaBuda attempted to “Table” the resolution but were unable to get the votes needed to table the resolution.

LaBuda attempted to adjourn the full board meeting, but Legislator Gene Benson called it a procedural issue that the meeting could only be adjourned by the Chair of the Legislature.

Immediately Scott Samuelson abruptly adjourned the full board meeting of December 18,2014.

Almost one year to the day, on Thursday December 17, 2015 Legislator Cindy Geiger again submitted the same resolution calling for subcommittees to be open to the public in accordance with Open Meetings Law.

This time, Chair Scott Samuelson said that he had never seen the resolution before. However, he allowed a discussion with County Attorney Samuel Yasgur.

Yasgur said that there are many types of meetings: advisory board meetings, as well as subcommittees and not all of them are open to the public. Sam Yasgur explained that some committees, which are part of the “public body” of elected officials would be open to the public.

Wouldn’t the public want subcommittees to be open if they have a direct bearing on issues such as redistricting – determining which candidates run for a particular district? Or sales tax sharing that involve revenues for each Town?

Legislator Cora Edwards said at the final board meeting on Thursday that she had phoned Freeman and asked him to review the resolution that had been put forward last year.

Freeman said that subcommittees of a public body (subject to a quorum – such as the County Legislature) are subject to the Open Meetings Law. He also stated that New York State case law has upheld the ruling that subcommittees are open to the public.

He continued that under New York State Home Rule, it is fine for a County to pass resolutions that are more stringent than those of New York State, but can’t weaken New York State Law.

The resolution submitted on December 17, 2015 to open subcommittees to the public did not pass by the Sullivan County Government Center with six voting against and three in favor. The three in favor of the resolution were Legislator Cindy Geiger, Legislator Cora Edwards and Legislator Kitty Vetter.

It all be interesting to see whether or not the new incoming Legislature will follow New York State Open Meetings law as written or will circumvent the law with closed meetings “for the few.”

It is time that everyone works together for the benefit of Sullivan County and all the political behind that scenes shenanigans stops once and for all – That can only begin by electing a new chairman.

Bill Liblick has made a name for himself of National TV Talk Shows where he spouted his outspoken views from the front row. Now he offers you his opinion every week in the “MOUTH THAT ROARS” Column in the Sullivan County Post Join in on the Conversation on Facebook in the group Sullivan County Post

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