City Council will re-vote on the lakefront sale plans on December 7th, but valid concerns remain about the legitimacy of the sale. If the city doesn’t honestly examine these questions now, the result could be more public outcry and embarassment later.
The Story Thus Far
Let’s review the timeline for the sale of the lakefront parcel:
- A proposal to buy and develop the land was submitted to the city by local developer Dave Bunnell sometime in early 2016.
- City Council met privately in executive session to discuss the proposal.
- At the June 1st City Council Meeting, a public hearing was approved for July 13th regarding the sale of the parcel, which was named “Seneca County Tax Parcel 23-3-17.2” on the public agenda.
- At the July 13th City Council Meeting, no members of the public commented during the public hearing regarding the sale of the parcel, which was named “CITY PROPERTY” on the public agenda.
- Sometime between July and September, a request for proposals was posted on the City of Geneva website announcing that the land was for sale, and the only response to the request was from Bunnell Associates.
- At the November 2nd City Council meeting, City Council approved the sale of the parcel, which was named “Town of Waterloo Tract” on the public agenda.
While City Council may have technically followed appropriate protocol for the transaction, the public has justifiable concerns about how the sale was done, including questions about the property being referred to by three different names on the only three public documents that mentioned the sale.
Repeatedly changing the name of the property during the sale process, whether intended or not, was grossly misleading and should have prompted the city to admit that they made an error, cancel the sale and restart the entire process from the beginning.
But perhaps more intriguing is the fact that the sale was first discussed in executive session, in private, out of the public eye. The question of whether or not this was allowable under the state’s “Open Meetings Law” is worth a closer look.
Can They Even Do That?
In New York State, Open Meetings Law requires that meetings of public bodies (like City Council) be open to the public, stating that it is “essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”
However, there are exemptions to the Open Meetings Law for City Council discussions that require secrecy (such as litigation, law enforcement investigations, etc.). In these cases, City Council is allowed to discuss those specific issues in executive session meetings that are closed to the public.
In the case of the lakefront sale, Open Meetings Law does provide an exemption for discussions dealing with the proposed sale of public property, but only if that proposed sale meets a specific condition:
§105. Conduct of executive sessions.
1. Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only, provided, however, that no action by formal vote shall be taken to appropriate public moneys:
h. the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.
Therefore, if publicly discussing the lakefront purchase and development proposal could be expected to “substantially affect the value” of the property, then City Council would be allowed to discuss it in secret during executive session.
So, would a public discussion of Bunnell’s proposal have “substantially affect(ed) the value” of the land? And was this type of exception intended to be applied to this type of property sale?
The answers aren’t clear, and regardless, it’s not Geneva Believer’s responsibility to advise the city on Open Meetings Law…it is the responsibility of the Department of State Committee on Open Government.
The Committee On Open Government “is responsible for overseeing and advising with regard to the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law.”
Upon request, the Committee on Open Government “prepares written advisory opinions in response to particular sets of facts and circumstances.”
I have submitted a request to the Committee on Open Government for an advisory opinion regarding the discussion of the lakefront land parcel in executive session, based on all available information.
Please note that an advisory opinion from the Committee’s staff is only an advisory, and the Committee does not and can not pursue legal proceedings against any public bodies.
It can take months for the Committee to prepare an advisory, but when the advisory arrives, you can be sure you will find it here at Geneva Believer.
If, on December 7th, City Council votes to pass the resolution to sell the parcel, and the Committee on Open Government advises at a later date that Open Meetings Law was not followed, then there will always be a shadow cast over the sale, which will further damage public trust.
Don’t forget to CONTACT CITY COUNCIL and tell them what you think about the lakefront parcel sale (emails are nice, but phone calls are better)