July 24, 2012 —
As a general rule, when making decisions about matters that will impact the public, elected officials in New York State are required to deliberate in public. But one important exception to the rule is the political caucus. When members of the same political party get together, they are allowed to discuss county business, and just about anything else they want to discuss, with no fear of running afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
It was not always so. After the law was passed in 1997, according to the Committee on Open Government, “judicial decisions indicated that the exemption pertained only to discussions of political party business.” That changed in 1985, when the law was amended to say that caucuses were exempt from the law “without regard to the subject matter under discussion.”
In Sullivan County, that means that the seven Democrats can meet behind closed doors and discuss important matters with no or limited input from the two Republican members. Democratic legislator Cindy Geiger thinks the practice should be changed, and it was discussed at the Government Center on July 19.
Geiger told The River Reporter, “What happens in the discussion is very different when all nine legislators are at the table because the information is flowing among all nine.” She said that, once she was elected and saw how the political caucus process works, “I couldn’t get over the fact that all nine legislators were not receiving the same information.”
Therefore, she has proposed a resolution that would prohibit the discussion of public business, which at least one other municipality in the state has done.
Some of her Democratic colleagues don’t agree with her. Legislator Jonathan Rouis said during discussion at the meeting that, unlike other counties, Sullivan only has nine legislators, and most matters get a full discussion. He added that usually every resolution is ultimately voted on by all nine lawmakers.
Members of the public who spoke on the issue sided with Geiger. David Colavito said that the issue to him is personal because his elected representative at the county is Republican Alan Sorensen, “and he’s in the minority, and I don’t know how he gets to represent me if he’s not in the loop.” He said he agreed with Sorensen, who said, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.”
Ken Walter, who attends many county meetings, said he could think of two issues in which the caucus discussions did not serve the Democratic legislators well. One was the decision to put the contract with the Sullivan County Visitor’s Association out to bid on short notice, and the other was the proposed formation of a law enforcement commission.
He said that, because most of the discussions about the two matters took place in caucus behind closed doors, the public had no way of knowing the thoughts of the legislators regarding those subjects.
It is not clear at this point if the caucus resolution will ever come up for a vote, but Geiger said that “public pressure” is needed if anything is going to change.