March 11, 2019, Buffalo News
It can be the mundane, unsexy rules that catch an organization…the tasks that should be rote but are left undone. Open meeting rules are like that; they’re not shiny tokens that bring dollars or programs to a university, but they are necessary pieces of good governance and demonstrate transparency of organizations and their boards, especially those funded with tax dollars. The public colleges and universities in Western New York have failed their transparency course.
The nonprofit Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government recently graded the 10 higher education institutions in that area that are obliged to follow the same rules as governmental units. They all failed to measure up when judged on openness and transparency. None received higher than a 65 in the report.
The items that were missing were not complicated or controversial—meeting agendas with related documents for trustees and previous meeting minutes were not published on the college website.
Attorney Paul Wolf, president of the coalition, said there is no enforcing mechanism in New York to push government entities, colleges and universities to comply with the regulations. He discussed the report with University of Buffalo journalism students at a workshop on the North Campus.
“In many states around the country, you can go to your state attorney general to enforce the law. We don’t have that in New York State,” Wolf said.
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The coalition gave the following scores to these schools:
- The University at Buffalo, 64
- Erie Community College, 53
- SUNY Fredonia, 39
- Niagara County Community College, 28
- Jamestown Community College, 23
- SUNY Empire State College, 20
- SUNY Buffalo State, 10
- Alfred State, 6
- Genesee Community College and SUNY Geneseo, 0
The coalition also graded colleges and universities on whether meetings were videotaped and subsequently posted online, if the public was permitted to speak at meetings, and if motions to go into executive session followed the Open Meetings Law guidelines.
A basic requirement of Open Meeting Law—posting meeting agendas with applicable documents—was done by only half the schools that were reviewed over a five-year period. It was therefore impossible to determine if those five boards followed procedure in order to move into executive session where the public is excluded.
The report determined that the only boards that included public speaking at their meetings were Jamestown Community College and Niagara County Community College.
There are easy fixes to this lack of transparency and the sidestepped-past Open Meeting Law. One would hope they can improve their grades next semester.—Marian Conway