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Binghamton, other municipalities grapple with changes to holding public meetings

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VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — The City of Binghamton has been holding public meetings remotely for several months. But it’s not clear whether the city is fulfilling all the requirements under New York state law.

Remote Meeting Transcriptions

In early September, the New York State Legislature assembled in a special session to pass several pieces of legislation. They included a measure allowing public bodies like school boards, city councils, planning boards and county legislatures to hold meetings without in-person attendance.

The law stipulates that in order to hold meetings remotely, a recording and transcription of that meeting must be posted online afterwards.

The City of Binghamton opened in-person attendance at meetings in late June, but cut off in-person attendance again in September after the new legislation was passed. Most city council meetings are streamed over the city’s YouTube page and posted immediately after, though other bodies, like the Board of Contract and Supply, are less consistently streamed or posted.

While many of the recordings are posted, the city hasn’t made any transcriptions publicly available, as the law dictates.

WSKG submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for many of the public meetings held through the month of September.

“Any additional documents pertaining to your request(s) were not located or do not exist,” the city wrote in response to the request.

In a hearing before New York Assembly lawmakers last month, Mikale Billard, vice president of the New York State Association of Clerks of County Legislative Boards said many municipalities find the transcription requirement expensive and difficult to carry out.

"You also have to provide a transcription, verbatim, of that meeting, which becomes very difficult, costly and it basically duplicates everything else you're doing,” Billard said. “It doesn't really require you to have it immediately. There really is no time limit, but with that, if you just have one individual come in and say 'I want the transcriptions of every meeting from March 13 to today,' you're looking at a pretty good cost."

The law allowing for remote meetings expires on Jan. 15, 2022, though lawmakers in the hearing entertained the possibility of allowing some remote meetings moving forward.

Jared Kraham, Binghamton’s mayor-elect and current executive assistant to the mayor, told WSKG he sees both sides for remote meetings, but generally believes city business should be conducted in-person. 

"It makes it easier for members to participate who may be remote or who may have hesitancy about in-person meetings. But... there's kind of a core belief that I have is that decisions of the government should be made in-person,” Kraham said

New 24-Hour Agenda Requirement

In October, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law legislation requiring municipalities to post meeting agendas and any proposed legislation publicly, 24 hours before any public meeting.

The measure, which goes into effect this week, is aimed at ensuring public business is being carried out transparently.

Some Binghamton City Council members have complained in recent months that city staff hasn’t given them legislation to review with enough time before city council meetings.

Earlier this month, one measure to establish a board to oversee the $48 million Water Street apartment complex and parking garage development, hadn’t been sent to council members, nor was the full agenda packet for the meeting posted online.

Last week, WSKG reached out to the city’s purchasing office to request an agenda for the weekly Board of Contract and Supply meeting, but was told it would only be available afterwards.

“These can be found on the City website calendar after the meeting,” the city’s purchasing agent wrote back. “If they are not posted, you can submit a FOIL request.”

Kraham said the agendas for city council are managed by the city clerk’s office, but maintained that city hall as a whole is not taking a laissez-faire approach to transparency measures.

“With city council, that is all done through the clerk's office,” Kraham said. “The administration has nothing to do with that. But certainly, when it comes to planning commission, zoning boards of appeal, public boards and commissions that are the responsibility obviously, we'll work to follow and follow any legislative guidelines."

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.