On Tuesday, Ogdensburg City Council closed the doors of its meeting to discuss the hiring process for a city manager, but a state official claims they violated the law in the process.
Mayor William D. Nelson called the meeting into an executive session to confer with Dominic Mazza of the Bonadio Group, the Syracuse firm leading the city manager search, and to confer on possible changes to the city managers contract.
However, Robert J. Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee On Open Government, says Mr. Nelson did not have grounds to close the meeting.
If they were discussing the process, clearly there would not have been a basis for entering an executive session, he said. If they looked at the law, they would avoid these kinds of pitfalls, and the law in my view is easy to understand.
Mr. Nelson claimed City Attorney Andrew W. Silver advised the council that they had grounds to close the meeting.
We discussed what we were going to discuss with our city attorney, and he said it was okay to talk about in executive session, he said. The terms of potential contracts and personnel issues are confidential information.
Article 7, Section 105 of the State Open Meeting Law allows the council to close its meetings for only a handful of reasons, said Mr. Freeman, among them issues related to specific individuals. Since no candidate has been chosen, Mr. Freeman said the council needlessly entered executive session.
It is public because they are not talking about any particular individual, they are talking about policy, he said.
Mr. Nelson disagreed.
We were conferring with our consultants to discuss potential candidates, and that is private information, he said.
Council member Wayne L. Ashley said that wasnt the case.
Absolutely, positively not, he said. We did not discuss any names or any potential candidates in particular.
Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley said the council didnt knowingly break the law.
I didnt know that, and if I had known, I wouldnt have voted to go into executive session, he said. It sounds like we need to do this publicly.
The council had no basis for closing its meeting to discuss the contracts, either, said Mr. Freeman.
They cant close their meetings, he said. Because the exception that apparently has been relied upon says that a public body can close the doors to discuss the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation but there isnt anyone in particular that they are talking about.
Mr. Freeman said the law protects the City Councils right to meet in private with its attorney for advice about a specific legal matter, but since Mr. Mazza is not the citys attorney, that protection does not apply in this case.
The law requires the entire hiring process be done openly until specific candidates are discussed, said Mr. Freeman.
Until they focus on specific candidates for the position, there would be no basis for conducting an executive session, he said.
Mr. Freeman is one of New Yorks leading authorities on open records and open meetings statutes, with over 38 years of experience interpreting and writing opinions on the law.