It took just two weeks for the New York Coalition for Open Government to spot a hoodwinking in Columbia County. The Coalition on May 24 condemned the Philmont Village Board’s for its 3-2 decision May 10 to eliminate online access to public meetings.

Solid reporting and editorializing might have taken a hand here, but the scolding meted out by the Coalition was loud and clear: The village board must understand the public has a right to information and that Philmont has taken up residence on this watchdog group’s radar.

Now, given an opportunity Monday to elaborate on why he wanted to eliminate Zoom access, Mayor Brian Johnson said, “There is no reason I need to comment on that.”

In a sharply worded letter to the village board written by Coalition 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.

Existing technological standards make public access a no-brainer, Wolf said.

“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 village board decided last week to allow a live audio feed of board meetings through WGXC radio, Trustee Debra Gitterman said Monday. The board hopes to have the stream set up for its June 14 meeting. Unfortunately, with this method, residents can listen, but not watch, or participate in, the meeting.

Laws mandating government transparency are routinely flouted by elected officials. This puts the public at a disadvantage by keeping key information out of reach. Situations such as those presented in Philmont offer an opportunity to reflect on the way our elected officials practice democracy — or fail to practice it. Transparency is vital to all of us. We have to push our elected officials to think twice before shutting us out of the governments we elect.

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