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More closed doors: Empire State Development debates transparency

At yesterday's meeting of the Empire State Development Corporation board - the agency that helps fund economic development projects in New York - ESD President Ken Adams proposed the formation of a new committee to talk about policy.

But here's where it gets meta: the board doesn't yet know if they want their committee-to-talk-about-stuff to have to talk about that stuff in public.

That indecision led to a surprisingly candid exchange about whether the board wanted to skirt the state's Open Meetings Law, shown in the following video (courtesy of ESD):

In the clip, after Ken Adams has proposed forming a policy committee, board member Rob Dyson says he thinks all the board members should be involved if the committee does come to fruition.

That triggered board member Dennis Mehiel to ask if the meeting would be subject to open meetings law, which requires the state's "public bodies" to hold their meetings in public.  Adams refers the question to his staffer, ESD chief counsel, Leecia Eve.

She weighed in:

Open Meetings Law was a very focused part of our discussion. The advantage of having a policy committee that is comprised of fewer than a quorum is that it can be a private frank discussion and various board members can communicate with that committee, you know by phone. You can still have conversations. But basically when you have a majority of the board meeting to discuss business that could eventually make it to the board's attention, it does by law have to be subject to the open meeting law.

The inverse of that being, make your committee small enough and you don't have to open your meeting to the public.

This conversation is all more interesting because there's been no lack of controversy over closed meetings held by new Cuomo administration regional economic advisory councils. Lots of people were upset that the first sessions of the regional economic councils (created to work with Empire State Development) happened behind closed doors.  

There was also a meeting of the Department of Conservation's new fracking panel yesterday in Albany. And guess what: they met in private too.

Planning around the Open Meetings Law

Frank Mauro, of New York's Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think thank, says the kind of thinking-out-loud that happened at the ESD meeting probably isn't all that rare.

"I think a lot of private bodies probably think that and probably do that," he says. "But it seems strange to try and reveal that publicly."

The committee Adams proposed would give input on laws and programs to support business and economic development.

Mauro says any expansion of the ESD board's responsibility into advising policy decisions may not raise conflicts of interest "on the surface."

"[I]t depends on who the members of the board are at any time and whether they’re being assessed for their conflicts in their role as board members ... if the commissioner is having them share in his responsibilities as commissioner of economic development."

Russ Haven of NYPIRG is more blunt.

"The public's business should be done before the public," he says. "That's the best policy, that's what's embedded in law, and that's the spirit of the law."

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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