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Virtual votes zap public participation

Photo courtesy of Fredonia Public Access Fredonia trustees gather for a virtual meeting that does not include attendance by the public.

Zoom meetings, which were forced upon numerous organizations, schools boards and government entities due to COVID-19 over the last 15 months, have had dramatic consequences that could forever change how America operates and communicates. Though this model has become both necessary and convenient, it comes with many of the pitfalls and lack of responsibility that are associated with the snarky aspects of social media.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the city of Dunkirk where tempers flare and unkind words are shared almost regularly during Common Council meetings. Since January 2020 when a new council was seated, members have constantly butted heads with Mayor Wilfred Rosas over hirings, firings and personnel decisions.

Twice during this span — once last June while on Zoom and more recently in December during an in-person meeting — Rosas was kicked out by Councilman At-Large Paul VanDenVouver for attempting to voice his opinion while being visibly frustrated. Those exits are both comical and embarrassing.

Just this week, however, the council went after a different target in the city attorney. By a 4-1 margin, Dunkirk’s council offered a “vote of no confidence” in the job being done by Richard Morrisroe. Council says their action is due to a failed lawsuit and a lack of proper bookkeeping.

There may be some truth to that, but in the bigger picture it is an unfortunate vendetta aimed at smearing Morrisroe’s reputation. At the same time the council is criticizing Morrisroe, it is utilizing a different attorney in Dan Gard who has a history of finding controversy in whatever municipality he represents.

Talk about a lack of trust. No other governmental entity in this county is paying two attorneys for separate representation.

In Fredonia, a recent retreat has piqued the interest of at least one trustee in James Lynden who did not attend the gathering. Village Board members have been strangely silent about any discussion from the event while getting defensive about possibly breaking an open-meetings law due to four trustees being at the event, which constitutes a quorum. Of course, with meetings still being streamed online and through public access there is very little heat in the kitchen at village hall.

Without an audience — or the participation of residents — the government does not have to answer for the potentially illegal practices. Even Trustee Roger Britz seemed a bit too smug in his comments stating that if something were wrong, the law firm hired to represent the village would not have allowed the retreat to happen.

“I don’t know about how the rest of the board feels, but if this retreat was in any way unlawful, I would think our attorney would not have hosted it or conducted it,” he said Tuesday.

Realistically speaking, however, attorneys are not working in the best interest of the municipal residents who pay their salaries. Instead, those hired professionals have the backs of the board members. No lawyer in this position would ever admit to an illegal meeting, especially when there are no official minutes from the event.

Chautauqua County legislators also do not deserve a pass for their virtual flip-flops. Last fall, they withdrew a resolution for Democratic Election Commissioner Luz Torres due to an internal feud taking place within the party.

Later in March, 16 members approved a resolution to appoint Loren Kent to that post despite a legal challenge by the county Democratic party. Once the state Supreme Court ruled in the Democrats favor, these same lawmakers had an amazing revelation that there needed to be healing. Torres was approved as Democratic election commissioner last month.

All these matters happen right before our eyes if we care enough to watch. It occurs with little to no public participation and no one watching in the room, which can add a good dose of accountability.

When meeting virtually, representatives have total control and voices from the outside can go silent. If you think that is not appealing to those we are electing, then we are all playing right into their hands.

Open government is about more than just being seen. It requires participation — and not just from those who are elected.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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