Coalition blasts closed-door political caucus meetings

Jan. 26—The New York Coalition for Open Government, during a press conference Thursday morning, blasted the law that allows political caucuses of local governments, including Chenango and Otsego counties, to meet to discuss public policy.

"These secret meetings make the open meetings law a sham," Paul Wolf, president of New York Coalition for Open Government, said.

The coalition asked counties whether their legislatures or boards of supervisors held private party caucus meetings, how often they meet, if the caucuses discuss public policy and why the meetings occur.

"We emailed every county," Wolf said. "It was very difficult to get a response."

Of the 57 counties outside New York City, only 14, or 25%, responded, the report said. "Through information obtained from reporters and other research, we obtained information regarding 27 counties in total, which represents 47% of the 57 counties. Of the 27 counties that we obtained information for, 23 hold private caucus meetings and four do not. In other words, of the counties that we obtained information for, 85% hold caucus meetings."

Local counties that responded to the survey included Chenango and Otsego. The report said Chenango and Otsego counties hold caucus meetings. Otsego County also responded that the caucuses discuss public business during their meetings. Otsego County Board Chairman David Bliss and County Attorney Denise Hollis did not return a phone call and Representatives Clark Oliver and Andrew Marietta did not return emails requesting comment as of press time.

Delaware and Schoharie counties were not mentioned in the report.

The report criticized the caucus meetings, "Allowing local governments to conduct private caucus meetings is a huge problem, where a governing body may be dominated by one political party."

Wolf gave a history of how caucus meetings were allowed by the state legislature. He said New York was the last state to enact Open Meetings Law legislation. It was passed by the legislature in 1976 and it took affect in 1977. He said Alabama was the first state to enact the legislation in 1915.

"I think that tells you something about how New York liked to operate," he said.

Local municipalities complied with the law for the most part, he said. In 1980, the eight Democrats on the Rochester City Council would meet with the mayor behind closed doors to discuss public policy. The newspapers and the one Republican, Anthony Sciolino, were not allowed to attend the meetings, Wolf said.

"To his credit, Mr. Sciolino filed a lawsuit against the rest of the council," Wolf said. "The local Rochester newspapers joined the lawsuit."

The court ruled the against the other council members and the mayor and said they couldn't meet in private as it violated the Open Meetings Law.

The state legislature continued to meet as caucuses to discuss business behind closed doors until New York Post reporter Fred Dicker sued to be able to attend the meetings, he said. The state legislature passed an amendment to the Open Meetings Law on May 30, 1985, saying political caucuses can meet to discuss public policy in private, he said. Then Gov. Mario Cuomo signed the legislation the day after it passed, he said.

According to a report issued by the coalition, shortly before the legislation passed, the Oneonta Star sued the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors. Republicans made up 10 of the 16 supervisors on the board and admitted they met regularly as a caucus to discuss public policy, the report said. The case was argued before the Appellate Division on May 30, 1985, the same day the amendment was passed, the report said. The court based its ruling on the legislature's new amendment and determined that the closed meetings of the Republican members of the board of supervisors did not violate the Open Meetings Law, the report said.

"This amendment completely guts the Open Meetings Law," Wolf said. "The courts have been pushing back since then."

In addition to courts issuing findings saying public business shouldn't be approved in private meetings, the city of Ithaca enacted legislation in 1985 prohibiting public policy be discussed in caucus meetings. Other towns and counties have also passed similar laws, Wolf said.

The state coalition would like the state legislature to amend the Open Meetings Law to eliminate caucus meetings at the local level. Wolf said it makes sense at the state level to hold caucus meetings. If the state doesn't pass legislation, the coalition would like to see local governments pass legislation eliminating caucus meetings, Wolf said.

Vicky Klukkert, staff writer, can be reached at or 607-441-7221.