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Democratic leader pushes for Onondaga County Legislature to webcast committee meetings

Syracuse.com logo Syracuse.com 9/6/2022 Tim Knauss, syracuse.com
Onondaga County legislators voted Tuesday to approve $200 payments to senior citizens. © Tim Knauss | tknauss/syracuse.com/TNS Onondaga County legislators voted Tuesday to approve $200 payments to senior citizens.

UPDATE: County lawmakers today voted to table Legislator Chris Ryan’s proposal to webcast committee meetings and to discuss it further at the Ways and Means Committee. The committee next meets on Sept. 15, four days before budget review meetings begin. Read the full story.

Syracuse, N.Y. – A Democratic lawmaker today will propose livestreaming all committee meetings of the Onondaga County Legislature, in hopes of beginning in time for committee budget meetings later this month.

The move comes amid recent changes in the way meeting minutes are kept. Democrats say the minutes no longer provide a full account of proceedings.

Legislator Chris Ryan, the Democratic minority leader, said he plans to introduce the resolution Tuesday even though it has not been reviewed by a committee first, as is typical. Ryan said the issue needs immediate attention because, since July, the meeting minutes no longer provide an adequate record of committee meetings.

“We really had a true indication of how insufficient they are,’’ Ryan said.

Regular monthly sessions of the full legislature have been livestreamed for the past two years and are archived on the legislature’s Facebook page. But much of the legislature’s work occurs at committee meetings, which are not available online.

Committee meeting minutes in recent weeks have been tough to decipher if you didn’t attend the meeting. Consider, for example, minutes of the July 26 Ways & Means Committee meeting, where legislators and representatives of the county executive discussed the $85 million aquarium project – the biggest controversy in years.

Portions of the minutes are no more than vague sentence fragments, with no indication of who was speaking. Here’s a sample:

o Public safety – have not talked with city; destiny has had issues recently; across from Hiawatha are the Aloft hotel, Myers Creek Brewing, and other businesses and residential areas, have not heard of major crime issues there

o Expect this aquarium will spur development; more people means the area will be safer

o County project, but do not understand why county is putting all money out, when it will benefit city of Syracuse

o Aquarium needs to go to public; if public wants facility, vote would be easier; why not take to public?

o County Executive has had conversations with public including civic groups, business groups, schools, seniors

Neither Legislature Chairman James Rowley, R-Clay, nor Clerk Jamie McNamara could be reached Friday to discuss the new minutes format. Until recently, the minutes typically provided a fuller account of who said what.

During an interview in mid-August, before Ryan introduced his resolution, Rowley said he was reluctant to livestream committee meetings because he wants to protect any non-legislators at the meetings who might be shy about appearing on camera.

Committees typically hear presentations from county staff or, less frequently, representatives of private organizations. Rowley said those people may not want to appear in a webcast.

“It’s just sort of a courtesy to them, you know, whether or not they want to be on a livestream. So we just basically decided, you know, to accommodate everybody, we’ll just not do that,’’ Rowley said.

He did not explain the decision further. There have been no specific complaints from people who asked not to be livestreamed, he said.

State law does not require the legislature’s meetings to be streamed online. Rowley said he and his Republican colleagues discussed the matter and decided not to stream committee meetings.

“We don’t have to, and it’s not a requirement, so we’re not going to do it,’’ he said.

Rowley could not be reached to comment on Ryan’s proposal.

Statewide, many good government groups have lobbied for video access to public meetings, saying it increases citizen participation. Led by Reinvent Albany, a coalition of groups pushed for state legislation this year that would have required all governments to stream their meetings and archive the video for five years. The effort failed.

Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst at Reinvent Albany, said the watchdog groups sought to mandate “hybrid meetings,’’ or meetings that occur in person but that are also webcast. One of the benefits of the Covid pandemic was that governments figured out the technology to do that, she said.

“We learned a lot during Covid about the capabilities and ability of government bodies to adapt and use technology,’’ Fauss said. “The best way to ensure the most access is to have that in-person accountability and the webcasting of meetings.’’

As lawmakers across the state have returned to meeting in person, many have stopped livestreaming their meetings, said Joan Durant, voter services director for the League of Women Voters in Onondaga County. The League was among the groups pushing for mandated hybrid meetings.

“It just seems to me, (and) to the League, something that we should be doing to be transparent, to let the public know, to get more people involved, hopefully to get more people to run for public office because they know more about it,’’ Durant said.

If Onondaga County legislators approve the resolution to webcast all their meetings, including committees, they would join a growing roster of governments that do the same.

The city of Syracuse has webcast all its city council and other agency meetings since 2019, a year before the pandemic. The town of Manlius also does so. All state authorities (including the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency) are required to livestream meetings. New York City has a law requiring public agencies to webcast meetings.

Do you have a news tip or a story idea? Contact reporter Tim Knauss: email | Twitter | | 315-470-3023.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit syracuse.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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