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October 21, 2014
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Legislative steering committee called illegal; Sorensen to stop attending


County legislator Alan Sorensen is asking his colleagues to consider some major changes. In an email sent in the wake of a vote by the legislature to change the way tourism dollars are awarded in the county, Sorensen posted on his blog, www.legislatorsorensen.com, a suggestion that the county do away with the legislative steering committee, which is made up of the county chair, the vice chair, and the leaders of the majority and minority parties, who meet weekly with the county manager.

He wrote, “This ‘steering committee’ has evolved to be an impediment to good government by limiting the flow of important information to four instead of nine legislators and placing important policy decisions in the hands of just a few.”
Further, on the radio program Making Waves, on WJFF on January 30, Sorensen told interviewer Barbara Gref that he intends to no longer attend the meetings “from this point forward.”

A bit later in the program, Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, which is a part of the NYS Department of State, said that the steering meetings, as now being conducted are in violation of the Open Meetings Law.

He said because of an amendment to the law that was adopted in 1979, the law covers not only the legislature but also “any committee, subcommittees or similar body.” Therefore, when the three members of the committee, which represents a quorum, get together the public should be invited to the meetings, which is not now the case.

Sorensen’s post also listed a couple of other changes. He wrote that he would like his colleagues to consider changes to the way the committee system is structured. There are 12 legislative committees, which cover such areas as public safety, health, economic development and so on. Sorensen wrote, “Right now, a chair of a committee holds more power in that area than the other eight members. In the past, some legislators have used their position as chair of these committees to unfairly control and drive their own personal agendas, and to serve special interests instead of the taxpayers.

“The committee structure can also be used to keep legislation from seeing the light of day. If a legislator wants to introduce a piece of legislation that falls under the purview of a certain committee, they need the committee chair's permission to get the resolution on the agenda. If the chair of the committee refuses, the only option is to file a legislator-sponsored resolution by noon on Monday with a request to have it placed on the full board agenda. The latter approach is ineffective and unnecessary if we work together to provide an environment that encourages open discussion of issues. We need to consider other options.

“I am recommending that we regularly schedule two Executive Committee meetings each month where all nine members are involved and can vote right away on issues of concern for these areas, it would be fairer and more efficient.” Currently, there is one Executive Committee meeting each month.

Finally, he recommends that that all meetings be held in the legislative chambers rather than in the cramped meeting room. He wrote, “Too often interested parties find themselves standing outside the room trying to observe the legislative deliberations taking place. This is unfair. We should do our best to provide a seat for everyone and we can do this simply by moving all committee meetings to the legislative chambers.”
Go to www.legislatorsorensen.com for the full text.