Watchdog critical of comment restrictions

A state open government watchdog blasted Fredonia Mayor Michael Ferguson for shutting down public commenting at a Board of Trustees meeting Monday.

However, previous opinions from New York state’s own open government advisory board seem to support the mayor.

Paul Wolf, a Williamsville attorney who heads up the New York Coalition for Open Government, called Ferguson’s move “simply absurd.”

Ferguson cited the advice of village law firm Webster Szanyi as a reason for the ban. The attorneys advised the action because Fredonia is facing a lawsuit against trustees’ Dec. 26 decision to decommission the village water treatment plant, draw down its reservoir and acquire water from Dunkirk.

Ferguson said previously there would be no public commenting on water issues until the suit is resolved, but then skipped the public speaking portion entirely at Monday’s meeting.

Wolf said, “The fact that some residents have filed a lawsuit against the village is not a reason to ban water comments or all public comments. If village officials do not want to comment due to pending litigation, that is up to them, but it is not a valid reason for banning public comments.”

Wolf said it shouldn’t be Ferguson’s call to cut public participation from trustees meetings.

“It is not solely up to the mayor whether to eliminate public comments or not. For public comments to be eliminated, a resolution should be introduced for the village board to vote on,” Wolf said.

He added, “In America, we do not have kings, we have governing bodies elected by the public who vote on items. Gagging the public because the mayor is tired of being criticized is not how a democracy works.”

The state’s own Committee on Open Government (COG), appointed by Albany politicians, sees things a little differently. Advisory opinions on its website note that the state Open Meetings Law does not technically give the public a right to speak at government meetings.

According to the most recent opinion about public meeting participation on the COG website, issued in 2019, “The Open Meetings Law gives the public the right to attend, listen and observe the performance of public officials during meetings of public bodies. That statute, however, is silent with respect to public participation.”

The opinion continues, “If a public body does not want the public to speak during its meetings, a policy or rule to that effect would be valid. Many public bodies, however, permit limited public participation, and when they do so, this office has advised that rules should be adopted and that any such rules must be reasonable and treat members of the public equally.”


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