October 20, 2021

City graded on open government

Todd R. McAdam/contributing photographer

The U.S. flag flies over downtown Cortland on in this Cortland Standard file photo.

The city of Cortland ranked in the lower third of 20 New York communities in open government practices, reports a nonpartisan coalition on open government, which noted the city didn’t provide meeting minutes, video or audio of meetings in a timely fashion.

However, Mayor Brian Tobin said the city is doing its best to be timely with all matters related to council meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, which has left the city understaffed.

“While I appreciate the feedback, the reality is our staff has been overloaded and working tremendously hard to get through everything so we’ve had to prioritize,” Tobin said Friday.

The New York Coalition for Open Government Inc., released a report in early July giving the City of Cortland a C after reviewing the city’s practices for June meetings, along with 19 other municipalities.

The report focused on:
• Whether all meeting documents were posted before the meetings.

• Whether the meetings were live streamed on the municipality’s website.

• Whether the meeting video or audio was posted on the municipality’s website after the meeting.

• Whether the municipality posted meeting minutes online in a timely fashion after the meetings — although not required by Open Meetings Law.

“In our opinion, meeting minutes are timely if the minutes of the last meeting are posted before the next meeting is held,” the report states. “This can be done, by posting draft minutes or at the very least including the minutes from the prior meeting in the agenda packet for the next meeting.”

The minutes of the city’s June 10 meeting were not posted until July 8, after the first meeting of July.

“In addition to being online and doing Zoom because of the pandemic, we’ve also been short-staffed,” Tobin said.

He said typically there are three people working in the mayor’s office, with two who would perform tasks related to the council meetings. Now, one of the three people is furloughed to save money during the coronavirus pandemic.

“When we are fully staffed, we’ll get it right,” he said.

Tobin also questioned whether the coalition was only doing reports like this during a pandemic and whether the coalition was trying to sell something to the city to help it get a better grade.

Paul Wolf, the president of the coalition could not be reached for comment.

“We have done reports for several years and not just during the pandemic.,” said Paul Wolf, the president of the coalition. “The report we did in May focused on larger local governments and this one focused on smaller local governments with a population between 10,000 and 32,000. We simply picked places from across the state.”

The Williamsville-based coalition is a nonpartisan, notfor- profit organization of journalists, activists, attorneys, educators and others who value open government and freedom of information, its website states.

“We are not selling anything,” Wolf added. “The help we are offering is simply our experience and understanding from doing this he past few years.”

In an email Tuesday to city aldermen, Wolf asked if they were willing to discuss how to improve the grade and offered to help.

“As an elected official, you have the power to make a difference by advocating for and supporting changes in how the City of Cortland conducts business,” Wolf said. “We welcome the opportunity to assist your efforts in any way that we can and would be happy to meet with you if you are interested in doing so.”