December 2, 2021

Official: County violates law with meeting invite

Cortland County violated state Open Meetings law when a quorum of the Cortland County Legislature was invited to discuss several topics in a Sept. 14 meeting that was never made public, a state open-government official said.

“If a quorum of a public body is invited to attend a meeting for the purpose of conducting public business, in my view, that meeting would be subject to all requirements of the Open Meetings Law,” said Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government.

The meeting was brought to attention when Legislator Ann Homer (D-Cortland) commented on the meeting called by Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) in a social media post regarding a near-violation of Open Meetings Law on Oct. 6.

“This is not the first time the Legislative Chairman has called illegal meetings,” Homer said in the post. “A few weeks ago, he invited ‘select’ Legislators to meetings to discuss the budget. The one to which I was invited had 10 legislators, which is a quorum of the legislature. I brought this to the clerk and chairman’s attention — with no response from either. I refused to attend the illegal meeting.”

During the meeting, legislators were going to discuss the “2021 budget development, Transpro recommendations and amending off the top sales tax resolution,” states the subject line of the email sent on Sept. 9.

“In order to ascertain which Legislators might be available to attend a meeting not already posted on the Legislature’s Committee schedule or the Legislature’s session calendar, my office is requested to send out calendar invites which allows Legislators to respond with their availability or decline attendance due to a scheduling conflict,” said Eric Mulvihill, the clerk of the Legislature, in an email. “Otherwise, how would we begin to determine if we had a potential quorum violation and notice a special meeting if the decision was made to move forward with a meeting. I cannot speak to why certain individuals’ availability was requested.”

Heider said that it was his intention to have three workshops with smaller groups of legislators in September.

“I thought it would be much more productive to start with smaller workshops first.  We would then convene for a committee of the whole to discuss the ideas and concerns legislators brought forward,” he said this morning in an email.

He said the first meeting was Sept. 3 and there wasn’t a quorum.

“I asked Legislative Clerk Mulvilhill to send out an invitation to legislators who did not attend the first meeting to ascertain their availability for the second meeting Sept. 14,” Heider said. “That email invitation would track the responses to see if there would be any quorum issues and/or to determine if a third meeting would be necessary.  Because the availability responses from that email were unfortunately low, as I recall only two responded that they could attend, I decided not to pursue a third meeting.”

The meeting was 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Sept. 14.

Under the Open Meetings Law a meeting is defined as “the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business.” The law continues: “As such, any time a quorum of a public body gathers for the purpose of discussing public business, the meeting must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is intent to take action, and regardless of the manner in which the gathering may be characterized.


No notice of 3rd meeting

Although Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil) announced on Oct. 13 a meeting of the committee would be taking place 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. today, the meeting was never officially publicized and put on the county’s meeting page.

“I don’t know why it wasn’t noticed,” Price said Monday after confirming the meeting was still taking place.

Under Open Meetings Law, if a meeting of a public body is scheduled at least a week in advance, then the public and media must be notified at least 72 hours before the meeting. If the meeting is planned less than a week in advance, the notice must be “to the extent practicable.”

The only meeting still listed for the month as of 2 p.m. Monday was for the Legislature meeting Thursday.


Also under the law it states that if a meeting is scheduled a week in advance then the public and news media must be notified at least 72 hours before the meeting, or, if it has less than a week’s scheduling, “to the extent practicable.”

Even though a quorum of the Legislature was invited, no quorum showed up — either of the Legislature or any of its committees.

Here are the legislators who were invited:

Attended:

  • Richard Stock (D-Cortland)
  • Doug Bentley (D-Cortland)

Did not attend:

  • Beau Harbin (D-Cortland)
  • Mitchel Ecclestoon (R-Cinncinatus, Freetown, Taylor, Willet)
  • Susan Wilson (D-Cortland)
  • Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil)
  • Ann Homer (D-Cortland)
  • Linda Jones (R-Homer)
  • Kevin Fitch (R-Homer, Preble)
  • Joe Nauseef (R-Cortlandville)