Jane and John Q. Public, and specifically residents of the village of Mamaroneck, have won an appellate court ruling that upholds their right to monitor government meetings.
Village officials had argued that Suzanne McCrory and Stuart Tiekert did not have standing to seek enforcement of the state Open Meetings Law, and a Westchester Supreme Court judge had agreed, dismissing their 2017 petition to restrict secret meetings.
If the judge’s ruling were allowed to stand, a Second Appellate Division panel ruled Feb. 5, it “would undermine, erode and emasculate the stated objective of this statute, which was designed to benefit the citizens of this state and … assure the public’s right to be informed and prevent secrecy by governmental bodies.”
McCrory, of the Orienta neighborhood, and Tiekert, of the Rye Neck section, regularly attend village municipal meetings, their petition states, “to learn about the operation and decision-making of their government.”
In March 2017 they received an email notice of a special meeting of the village board of trustees to be held the following morning.
McCrory was the only member of the public to attend. Tiekert was unable to attend on short notice.
The meeting was opened with a motion for executive session for “contract negotiations and advice of counsel.”
The Open Meetings Law permits secret sessions for personnel discussions and a few other specific exceptions, and the trustees, according to the petition, apparently discussed the hiring of a new village manager.
McCrory was told to leave the room, so that officials could confer in private. About an hour later, the public meeting was reopened and the village manager allegedly began discussing four items on a memo that may have included as many as 30 matters.
The manager occasionally noted that items had already been discussed, according to the petition.
McCrory concluded that at least three public policy matters that did not involve the hiring of a new manager had been discussed in the secret session.
The petition also contends that the explanation for the closed session was not valid and that the meeting minutes inaccurately describe the reason.
The closed session was not an isolated occurrence, according to the petition, but rather “an ongoing pattern of unlawful conduct.”
McCrory and Tiekert argue that the village excluded them from meetings that should have been open to the public, did not give proper notice, used executive session improperly and failed to accurately record meeting minutes.
They petitioned Westchester Supreme Court to make the village adhere to the Open Meetings Law and for village officials to undergo training in the law.
The village asked Supreme Court Justice Susan Cacace to dismiss the petition, arguing that McCrory and Tiekert lacked standing because they had not been personally damaged or injured.
“A mere member of the general public, a taxpayer or resident of the municipality, in and of itself,” she ruled, “is insufficient to confer standing.”
The appellate justices found that Cacace had applied reasoning often cited in land use cases, where the petitioner must demonstrate a direct harm that is distinct from a harm to the public at large.
But this case centers on an injury to the citizenry, the justices ruled. The purpose of the Open Meetings Law and the intent of the Legislature dictate that the exclusion of the public from a municipal meeting is the harm or injury.
“The Open Meetings Law was intended, as its very name suggests, to open the decision-making process of elected officials to the public,” according to the justices.
In ruling that McCrory and Tiekert had standing to bring their petition, the justices noted, they took no position on whether the village had in fact violated the Open Meetings Law.