DOT officials disagree with Committee on Open Government
By Zachary Matson
The state Committee on Open Government said the Adirondack salt reduction task force should comply with the Open Meetings Law, yet state officials want the body to be free to shut the public out as it deems fit.
The disagreement over the definition of “public body” and whether it applies to the task force, which is charged with making recommendations to reduce salt use in the Adirondack Park, is the latest salvo over the boundaries of the law that strives for government transparency.
The Committee on Open Government maintains that committees established by legislation to make recommendations pertinent to governmental action fall within the scope of the Open Meetings Law.
“In our opinion, the task force sits within the definition of public body and, as such, must hold all of its meetings… in compliance with the (open meetings law),” Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government said last week.
After a 90-minute public session at its inaugural meeting Feb. 28, the task force met in a closed “work session.” A facilitator at the meeting said the panel would get into the “nitty gritty” behind closed (virtual) doors, suggesting they planned to discuss scheduling and other organizational logistics. The committee is co-chaired by Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez and Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos.
A state Department of Transportation spokesperson promised that the state plans to conduct the task force meetings “as transparently as possible” and after the first meeting asserted the task force was not subject to the open meetings law. The spokesperson cited the panel’s mandate to make recommendations not regulations or laws.
“The Task Force is making the formal portion of the meetings public in an effort to be transparent throughout the process,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the laws establishing the task force “authorize but do not mandate public meetings or hearings for the task force to conduct its work” and that the task force is “therefore not subject to open meetings law.”
In the opinion of the open government watchdog, though, the fact that the task force was set up by legislation is key to its status as a public body. The committee and state court decisions have held that ad-hoc groups advising government agencies may not be subject to open meetings laws, but that when committees are established through legislative action they must abide, especially if quorum requirements are included in the law. The law creating the task force mandates it provide lawmakers and the governor an extensive report recommending ways to reduce salt use in the Adirondacks and outlining a pilot program.
“The task force performs a necessary function in the state’s decision-making process and the state agencies are required by statute to review and take into consideration the task force’s recommendations prior to establishing a road salt pilot program,” O’Neill wrote to support the argument for conforming to public meeting rules.
By comparison, the state’s High Peaks Advisory Group, which after meeting privately for months issued a 2021 report of recommendations to manage high visitation, was established by the state Department of Environmental Conservation — not by an act of the Legislature.
The Open Meetings Law applies to “any entity, for which a quorum is required to conduct public business… performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department.”
The law states that “recommendations or guidance which is purely advisory and does not require further action by the state or agency” do not constitute a “necessary function in the decision-making process.” But the open government committee argues that since state officials are required by the new law to evaluate the recommendations, the task force’s work meets the standard of government work that should be conducted in public.