PHILMONT — The New York Coalition for Open Government on Monday condemned the village board’s decision to eliminate online access to meetings.
Trustees voted 3-2 at its May 10 meeting to end online access to village board meetings.
The village has been providing Zoom access so the public can attend meetings online as the board meets in person. Zoom video recordings of the meetings have been posted on the village website for months for public access.
But Philmont Mayor Brian Johnson said May 10 the board will eliminate all online meeting access. After trustees Debra Gitterman and Jason Detzel spoke out against Johnson’s unilateral decision, the board took a vote. Trustees Douglas Cropper and Larry Ostrander sided with Johnson, winning the vote against Gitterman and Detzel. Gitterman and Detzel had concerns over meeting access and public health.
Johnson’s reasoning May 10 for eliminating access was that it is not needed and he thinks business should be done in person.
Given the opportunity Monday to elaborate on why he wanted to eliminate Zoom access, Johnson declined.
“There is no reason I need to comment on that,” Johnson said Monday.
Johnson has not seen the letter because he has not been to the office yet, he said Monday. The letter was sent by email but Johnson does not have an email.
In a scathing letter to the board written by New York Coalition for Open Government president Paul Wolf, he called the board’s action a public disservice lacking valid reasoning. The board should have filed a resolution and put it on a meeting agenda so the public could have a say in the decision, Wolf said.
“The 3-2 vote taken by the Philmont Village board to eliminate online access to meetings is a terrible step backwards for open, transparent government and a tremendous disservice to the public,” he said. “Before taking any action to eliminate online access to meetings, a resolution should have been filed and put on the meeting agenda so the public could have been informed of the vote and provided an opportunity to be heard before the board voted.”
The topic should be put on the next meeting agenda so a proper discussion can take place with public participation, Wolf added.
The ubiquitous use of technology during the pandemic has made public engagement more convenient, and there is no reason to end that, he argued.
“The pandemic has brought forth widespread use of technology, which has made it easier for the public to learn about their local government,” he said. “As life begins to return to some sort of normalcy, we should not toss aside the new tools, which have increased public viewings of meetings. As we return to in-person meetings, there is no reason not to continue live streaming meetings by video and no reason not to post recordings of meetings online for the public to observe at any time.”
The board decided last week to allow a live audio feed of board meetings through WGXC radio, Gitterman said Monday. The board hopes to have the stream set up for its June 14 meeting.
With this method, residents can listen, but not watch, or participate in, the meeting. Residents who wish to question or address the board will have to do so in person at the monthly meeting. Residents must email the village clerk before 3 p.m. the Friday before the meeting to speak, which takes place the second Monday of the month in the Village Hall. Workshop meeting participation is limited to board members.
The 3-2 vote on May 10 to end virtual access was disappointing and Johnson’s reasoning was even more regrettable, Wolf said.
Wolf also called out Ostrander by name, criticizing his May 10 suggestion that members of the public e-mail questions because he does not like the kind of conversations that result from the public asking questions over Zoom.
“Board member Larry Ostrander voted in favor of eliminating online meeting access and expressed annoyance with the public asking questions through Zoom and the ‘banter back and forth with the questions,’” Wolf said. “Amazingly, Ostrander expressed a preference for muzzling people and requiring them submit questions by email.”
Ostrander could not be reached for comment Monday after multiple attempts to contact him.
Gitterman disagrees with the decision to end Zoom participation, but she believes her colleagues have good intentions, she said in a statement Monday.
“I personally would like to see Philmont continue using technology tools that were introduced by necessity during COVID because I value measures that have the potential to increase public participation in the village government’s decision-making process, but the majority of my colleagues prefer the personal nature of in-person meetings and feel that is of greater value,” she said. “While I disagree with some of my colleagues on the decision to end Zoom participation, it’s been my observation that the Mayor and Village Board have done a great job of running our Village of Philmont for decades, long before I arrived, and I trust that Mayor Johnson has the best interests of Philmont at heart.”
Gitterman thinks the board could have handled the issue better by giving the public opportunity to contribute to the conversation, she said.
“In hindsight, I think we could have handled this matter better had we put the issue on the agenda for a future meeting, as Mr. Wolf suggests in his letter, so that there would be an opportunity for public comment and input on the decision to end Zoom participation,” she said. “Hopefully we can use this as an opportunity to set up such protocols for the future.”
Cropper declined to comment Monday, except to say the village is not breaking open meeting rules. Trustee Jason Detzel declined to comment Monday.
The Coalition for Open Government is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization made up of journalists, activists, attorneys, educators, news media organizations and concerned citizens who value open government and freedom of information, according to its website.