BY LEGAL LARRY
Transparency in government. This is one of the issues the candidates in the upcoming presidential elections talk about.
In New York State the law says government should not be conducting back room deals where the people who elected them cannot be part of the process. Governmental bodies and the politicians that comprise political boards are representatives of the voters. These voters have the absolute right to observe and comment on the procedures that politicians use to make decisions on behalf of the people.
In New York State, the law requires every public body, whether it is the County Legislature, town boards, village boards or school boards, to be open to the general public. The New York State Public Officers Law requires the boards to be open and also requires the same public bodies to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that adequately accommodate members of the public to attend, listen and observe and also permit barrier-free physical access to a handicapped person. There are certain exceptions to this requirement wherein a board can enter into executive session from a public meeting to discuss certain narrowly defined areas.
A public board is in session when a majority of the members of that board are present. If a board has five members, three are required to have a quorum to conduct business. Seven member boards require four members and the numbers increase based upon the size of the board.
In a recent article entitled “House of Horrors” that appeared in The Rockland County Times, it was reported that a majority of the Clarkstown Town Board met secretly across the street from Clarkstown Town Hall to discuss the future of the Conservative Party and the attempt to remove current members of the party. While political parties are not subject to the Open Meetings Law, none of the board members are registered conservatives, so it is questionable as to whether this meeting was proper or not.
Executive Director Robert Freeman of the State Committee on Open Government said the meeting would be unlawful if public business was discussed. However, only those who attended the meeting can say for sure, whether public business was discussed. But the impression such a meeting causes to the public violates the spirit of the Open Meetings law, in my opinion, anyway.
Additionally, certain residents of Clarkstown had attempted to call upon Supervisor Gromack and the town board about the recent deliberations to retain John (Jay) Savino, Esq. as an attorney to handle tax certiorari cases filed against the town. Some of the requests for information seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
By way of background, before a political board may spend public monies for goods and services, they must follow the requirements contained in New York State Law. Normally, before a government may make an expenditure of public funds in excess of $20,000 for purchases or $35,000 for service contracts, the board must utilize competitive bidding requirements. These requirements usually seek advertisements for sealed bids and are eventually awarded to the lowest “responsible” bidder.
Competitive bidding is strongly favored to prevent favoritism, improvidence, fraud and corruption in the awarding of a public contract. Competitive bidding is not required when the services are of a professional or unique nature.
Let’s look at how Clarkstown handled the Savino matter. The Town of Clarkstown hired Savino, chairman of the Bronx Republican Committee after the town dismissed the former chairwoman of the Independence Party, Marsha Coopersmith. Ms. Coopersmith earned a salary from Clarkstown of approximately $126,000 per year plus benefits prior to her termination. Using the auspices of saving money, the supervisor informed residents that the town would save between $75,000-80,000 per year. However, there was no bidding sought by the town.
The town board simply decided to award the contract to handle tax certiorari work to Savino. When questioned by residents about how the decision was made, both Supervisor Gromack and Town Attorney Amy Mele, Esq. informed residents, decisions were made in executive session and were not discussed during an “open meeting.” Only one member of the town board, Councilwoman Stephanie Hauser questioned the manner in which the town followed.
Additionally, documents obtained by way of Freedom of Information demonstrate that other firms were apprised by the town of the cost Mr. Savino agreed to charge. They were asked to try and beat the price. This action is contrary to the process of competitive bidding.
Recently, members of the Clarkstown community requested an opinion from State of New York Department of State Committee on Open Government. In an eight-page opinion letter, the state agency that oversees open government was critical of how the town board conducted meetings including deciding to hire Mr. Savino in an executive session meeting, not open to the public.
Ironically, in its 2012 budget, the Town of Clarkstown approved salaries of $1,229,395 for the eight attorneys working in the Town Attorney’s Office. One cannot help but wonder why additional attorneys are needed to handle the tax certiorari proceedings. Many of the town’s attorneys are highly qualified for the work they do, but are some simply employed due to their political affiliations?
Whether Mr. Savino was hired under the guise of saving money or simply due to his political clout is uncertain. What is certain is that the Town of Clarkstown used shortcuts in deciding to retain his services. The Town of Clarkstown would be best served by reviewing the opinions of the executive director of the Committee on Open Government and respect the questions for the people that elected them to their current positions.