Supe takes aim at closed-door meetings among board members

03/27/2014 5:15 PM |
Councilman John Dunleavy (left) and Sean Walter at a recent work session. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Councilman John Dunleavy (left) and Sean Walter at a recent work session. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

“This board tore each other apart for the last two years on petty issues. And the lack of caucuses allowed that to happen.”

That’s how Riverhead Republican committee leader Mason Haas explained why he believes Riverhead Town Board members, all Republicans, need to meet in twice-monthly political caucus meetings — which are closed to the public.

Town Supervisor Sean Walter says he stopped attending the meetings in January and believes other Town Board members are using them to illegally discuss public issues behind closed doors. But the Republican chairman and the executive director of the state’s open government committee say the meetings are legal — under certain conditions.

“It’s unacceptable that they would go behind closed doors in a caucus and change their minds, without public input,” Mr. Walter said. “In the very beginning, they were really about building consensus and trying to repair the wounds of the primary. But they quickly evolved into conversations about town business.”

He pointed to a recent decision by a majority of the Town Board — unofficially, as there was no formal vote — to back away from a plan to move the town animal shelter to the Henry Pfeifer Community Center in Calverton. He said he believed board members had all been on the same page on that issue until a caucus two weeks ago.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time and for the most part, the majority of the board agreed,” Mr. Walter said.

Since he’s stopped attending caucuses, however, the supervisor says several discussions in Town Hall — and outside it — have not gone his way.

He believes the board majority’s recent change of opinion on plans to convert the armory into a police headquarters and justice court and to sell the Second Street firehouse, also developed during caucus meetings. The supervisor said he first heard about the firehouse sale reversal from a News-Review reporter and later chastised Town Board members for going to the press before speaking to him.

At last week’s public work session at Town Hall, Mr. Walter tried to combat the caucuses by laying out a “vision for the town” (see related story, page 3). Using several pieces of white paper taped to a wall, he listed a number of “problems,” “options,” “solutions” and “goals” — and spoke about how the board can work together to improve the town.

The supervisor also alleges that Mr. Haas has been trying to convince council members not to support term limits, a topic they discussed at a recent work session and appeared to support, at least for Town Board positions.

Mr. Haas declined comment on that allegation. But he says the Republican board members are not discussing public business — including the topics Mr. Walter has brought up — at the caucus meetings. He says they discuss only the political ramifications of public issues — not the issues themselves.

“We talk about the political issues of how we handle things,” Mr. Haas said. “The fighting, political issues, those are the things we talk about, so they are not attacking one another publicly.”

Riverhead GOP Chair Mason Haas (left), Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Supervisor SEan Walter (back) and Councilman John Dunleavy on Election Night last year.

Riverhead GOP Chair Mason Haas (left), Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Supervisor SEan Walter (back) and Councilman John Dunleavy on Election Night last year.

Bob Freeman, executive director of the state committee on open government, said that if that explanation is true, “that would be right, and could be discussed in a caucus.”

Marge Acevedo, Riverhead Democratic Committee chairwoman, called the meetings “inappropriate.”

“They do what they want to do, when they want to do it,” she said. “They feel they have carte blanche since it’s an all-Republican board.”

She did state, however, that if board members were not meeting at Town Hall, regulating the meetings might be no different from “being at a party.”

In fact, New York State’s Open Meetings Law clearly exempts caucuses, based on a 1985 addition that was made because politicians at the state level felt that by discussing public business in public they would be revealing their political strategy to opponents, according to Mr. Freeman.

However, a 1992 court case — in which the Buffalo News sued Buffalo city council members, claiming they were violating that law by discussing the city’s budget crisis in a caucus — did establish a precedent that placed some restrictions on what can be discussed at caucuses, Mr. Freeman said.

In that case, the judge ruled that a legislative body cannot discuss public issues in caucus meetings when all its members are of the same party. If a board has just one member of a different political party from the others, the board majority can discuss anything they want in a closed-door caucus, Mr. Freeman said.

“This case indicated that when all of the members of a legislative body are from the same party, they can only hold closed caucuses to discuss political party business. They can not do so when they are discussing public business,” he said.

By getting the “attacks on one another” out of the way in the caucuses, Mr. Haas said, board members can focus on town business at board meetings.

“We’re not violating the open meetings law just by discussing things and seeing how everyone feels, instead of being on television and saying stupid things, when you should be saying stupid things in the caucus,” Councilman John Dunleavy said. (Board meetings are televised on Channel 22.)

Mr. Dunleavy said Mr. Haas has not pressured the board to oppose term limits, but rather that he changed his opinion on the issue after hearing from the public. He feels the voters handle term limits themselves, rarely electing a Town Board member for a long time.

Councilman George Gabrielsen feels the board needs only one caucus per month, not two. He declined to comment on what is said at caucus meetings.

“The importance of a caucus is to talk about things that were said in public or written in the paper that upset one board member or another,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said. “I look at caucuses mainly as a class on how to agree to disagree. I think the press and public know where each of us stands on any issue that we vote on together as a board. When board members have something they want to discuss publicly and cannot get it on the work session agenda, the topic is brought up and board members decide if they want to hear about it at a public work session.”

“A lot of times last year we would have caucuses when there was dissent on the board, and we looked like a bunch of kids stomping our feet,” Councilman Jim Wooten said. “It was mostly damage control, and they were called when there was a need for it. Now, I think [Mr. Haas] is trying to bring the board together to be more in tune with each other. We’re trying to pull the board together toward a common goal.”

Former Republican chairman John Galla, now a legislative aide for Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, said Tuesday night that he wished he’d held more caucuses as a party leader. He estimated that in his 17 months as chair, he held no more than 10.

Mr. Galla echoed the current chairman, saying that discussion of public matters never came up.

“I can’t remember one where any final decisions were ever made,” he said. “They had nothing to do with the issues. There were always well-known personality clashes, and caucuses under my tenure were about trying to bring peace between them.”

He rebuffed the thought that public issues might be discussed at a meeting, saying, “Anyone who has known John Galla longer than five minutes knows I’m not that type of leader.”

Mr. Wooten said the caucus meetings usually involve board members, Mr. Haas and sometimes some GOP committee members.

“I don’t think we’re doing anything illegal, nor would I partake in it if it was illegal,” said Mr. Wooten, adding that he would walk out of the meeting if he felt public business was being discussed in a caucus.

“Every party has caucuses,” he said. “It’s part of the American party system.”

Mr. Freeman said that in the state Legislature, most of the public business is discussed in caucus meetings of both the majority party and the minority party of the Senate or Assembly.

In Southold Town, which also has an all-Republican board, GOP chairman Peter McGreevy said, “Like political parties in most towns, we generally hold caucuses every couple of weeks if needed, every month or so if not. It depends on whether there are particular issues of political impact that need to be discussed.”

Supervisor Walter, however, feels Riverhead has not benefitted from the closed meetings.

“I want to do everything I can for what’s good for this town,” Mr. Walter said. “Unfortunately, biweekly caucuses where decisions are getting made behind closed doors is not what’s right for this town. The board has changed their opinions on things unbeknownst to me, and they’ve come up with no solutions.”

Mr. Walter fears the board will eventually pull its support for the ongoing subdivision plan for the Enterprise Park at Calverton, where an environmental study of the plan is taking about two months longer than expected.

The state Open Meetings Law and opinions of the state committee on open government rarely impose any sanctions or consequences, other than public embarrassment, unless they are used in filing a lawsuit.

Asked about the impact of the Buffalo case, Mr. Freeman said, “They had to abide by the judge’s decision from that moment forward.”

tgannon@timesreview.com