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More municipal documents going online in New York

By Fritz Mayer
January 18, 2012

ALBANY, NY — Beginning on February 2, all governments in New York State that have regularly updated websites will be required to post on those sites any documents that are going to be discussed by municipal officials during the regular course of an open meeting. For instance, plans for a new shopping mall would be posted when the developer is seeking permits from a planning board or zoning board.

The law is an amendment to the Open Meetings Law and, according to information on the website of the Committee On Open Government (COOG), it addresses two types of records. “First, those that are required to be made available pursuant to Freedom of Information Law; and second, proposed resolutions, law, rules, regulations, policies or amendments thereto. When either is scheduled to be discussed during an open meeting, the law requires that they be made available to the public, to the extent practicable, either prior to or at the meeting.”

Most of the towns in Sullivan County have websites, but not all of them are updated regularly, and the amount of material posted online varies. None of them contain the number of documents that will be called for by the new law.

As things stand now, towns, such as Lumberland, Tusten and Bethel, post to their websites major documents, such as proposed overhauls to the zoning codes, but not documents such as site plan reviews for individual projects and other less important documents.

However, the new law will not necessarily be a burden to small communities with small staffs because in crafting the legislation, COOG included language that allows officials a good deal of wiggle room in determining which documents to post.

COOG twice inserted the phrase “to the extent practicable as determined by the agency” to ensure that “the amendment is implemented reasonably and without undue burden or cost to an agency. In recognition of fiscal realities, the new provision specifies that an agency ‘may, but shall not be required to, expend additional moneys to implement the provisions of this subdivision.’”

COOG has a report available for small municipalities, whether they’re towns, villages or counties, that officials can access at www.dos.ny.gov/coog/index.html called “Evaluating the Importance of Technology and the Role of Information Providers within Local Governments in New York.” It provides guidance about how officials might discover “various methods of creating greater public access to government documents.”