As the issue of governmental transparency has become more prominent on the North Shore over the past year, a study by Blank Slate Media found a handful of villages do not post agendas for their public meetings until a day before, if at all.
The issue has arisen recently in the Village of Thomaston, where a local zoning law that set off months of controversy was passed at a Board of Trustees meeting with just one member of the public present, leading residents to question the transparency of their elected officials.
Following a study conducted by Blank Slate Media earlier this year about the accessibility of villages’ budgets, another one was conducted analyzing the publishing and distribution of the agendas for various board meetings.
The study found that 11 villages on the North Shore have their agendas for Board of Trustees meetings available for the public, either online or via email, at least three days, if not a week, before the scheduled meeting date.
The Villages of Great Neck, Great Neck Estates, Kensington, Kings Point, Thomaston, Flower Hill, Port Washington North, North Hills, Westbury, East Williston and Manorhaven all have their agendas posted at least a few days before their meetings.
Kings Point Clerk Gomie Persaud said she tries to post the agenda, which is always subject to change until the meeting begins, as early before the meeting as possible so residents can have an idea of what will be discussed and whether they choose to attend.
The Villages of Lake Success, Russell Gardens, Baxter Estates, Sands Point, Plandome Manor and Munsey Park have their agendas online at least 24 hours before, officials told Blank Slate Media, while the Villages of Saddle Rock and South Floral Park do not post theirs online.
Efforts to reach officials from those villages for comment on their agenda practices were unavailing.
The Village of East Hills does not have any agendas on its website, but the agenda can be sent by the village clerk upon request. The Village of East Williston has agendas archived to 2011 and current ones are accessible via the calendar. For the Board of Trustees meeting held every other Monday, agendas are posted before the weekend.
The Village of Floral Park has draft agendas available under a tab on the village website, archived as far back as 2017. Agendas are either posted the day of Tuesday Board of Trustees meetings or the day before. The Village of Mineola has agendas archived from 2019, and they are accessible via the village’s calendar and a tab. For Board of Trustees meetings held Wednesday, agendas are posted on either the Tuesday or Monday of that week.
The Village of New Hyde Park’s agendas are accessible from a tab on the village’s website and are posted one day before Board of Trustees meetings, which are held on the third Thursday of each month. The Village of North Hills has agendas for the year accessible under a tab and, according to the village administrator, they are posted whenever available but no later than the Friday before Wednesday’s Board of Trustees meetings.
The Village of Old Westbury has current and archived agendas available under a tab and they are posted by Friday. Meetings are held for the Board of Trustees on the third Monday of every month. The Village of Roslyn Estates has current and archived agendas which are accessible under a tab on the village website. Agendas are posted “sometime before” the Board of Trustees meeting, according to village officials.
In the Village of Bellerose, agendas are accessible on the village’s website and are posted before the weekend for Board of Trustees meetings, which are held on Mondays. In the Village of Roslyn, agendas are posted on the village calendar and are updated before the weekend. Board of Trustees meetings are held on Tuesdays.
The Village of Westbury does not have Board of Trustees agendas available online but does have agendas for the zoning board available online. In Williston Park, agendas are accessible via the village calendar and are made available at least 24 hours before Board of Trustees meetings on Mondays.
In Roslyn Harbor, agendas are not available online but public notices are posted to the website ahead of Board of Trustees meetings.
Kristin O’Neill, assistant for the state’s Committee on Open Government, said a municipality is only required by law to send out a notice of a regularly scheduled meeting at least 72 hours before the meeting. Those notices, she said, are required to be sent to what the government agency lists as its designated newspaper.
“There’s no legal obligation to prepare an agenda or to follow an agenda if one is prepared,” O’Neill said in a phone interview. “However, the open meetings law does require that any records scheduled to be discussed be made available to the public via the agency’s website at least 24 hours prior to a meeting.”
The word “records” indicates any resolution, local laws, policies or things of that nature. One individual with experience covering municipalities said “agendas should be posted online as early as possible to encourage residents to take part and have a say in what is happening in their own backyards.”
In the Town of North Hempstead, agendas for the Town Board are published roughly 24 to 48 hours before the monthly meetings. But disputes on the board about various items have spilled over into public sessions, resulting in some meetings lasting more than three hours.
Of certain agenda items in January regarding the employment status of a town superintendent, Supervisor Jennifer DeSena said she would have preferred to discuss the matter in a closed session but said the board does not meet before its public meetings.
Charles McQuair, special counsel to the supervisor, said party caucuses are unproductive and the board should meet in executive session beforehand.
In the Village of Thomaston, the issue of transparency was raised after trustees, during a July 12 meeting, unanimously approved a new local zoning law “for property located in certain adjoining zoning districts,” according to village minutes.
The local law permitted an application for a five-story apartment complex on the site of the Tower Ford building at 124 S. Middle Neck Road. Strong opposition was expressed at later meetings by groups of residents calling for Mayor Steven Weinberg to resign and claiming he conducted “shady dealings” with the developer of the proposed project and that residents were not effectively notified of the new local law in the July meeting.
Weinberg, in an email to Blank Slate Media, said, “The Village gave all required legal notices, and complied with all applicable procedural requirements.”
“We are concerned with how the village government communicated the project with residents and how the law was passed,” one resident said. “I understand the village complied with all the laws. But this is an important project for every local resident.”
After the July meeting, a lawsuit against Weinberg and the village was filed, the plans for the apartment were scrapped, the change in the zoning code was repealed and the village hired consultants to determine the historical value of the property. The consultants found the property to be within the village’s definition of a landmark and the property was ultimately given landmark status by village officials.