MASSENA The village Board of Trustees may have violated the states open meetings law during a meeting last week, according to a state official.
At its last meeting, the board tabled the hiring of a new career firefighter. Board members also tabled authorizing the Department of Public Works and the Massena Police Department to begin a search to fill two recently vacated positions. Village officials had discussed reducing the size of village staff through attrition as a cost-cutting measure at previous meetings.
After the motions had been tabled, Trustee Timothy J. Ahlfeld made a motion to enter into an executive session. Mr. Ahlfeld said the reason for the session was the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation. Police Chief Timmy J. Currier, Public Works Superintendent Hassan A. Fayad and Fire Foreman R. Shawn Gray heads of all three departments affected by the tablings were asked to stay for the closed-door meeting, and no action was taken by the board.
Executive session permits only the discussion of the performance, hiring or firing of a particular person behind closed doors, and not of adding or reducing general positions. Of the three tablings, only the hiring of a firefighter involved a particular person.
The other two tablings involved positions, but not specific people.
Any discussions about positions and not specific individuals must be hashed out in public, according to Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the states Committee on Open Government, a branch of the Department of State.
If the issue involved positions rather than the people who hold them, it would appear that there would have been no basis for conducting an executive session, Mr. Freeman said. It sounds as though there is a possibility the board failed to comply with the open meetings law.
The reason Mr. Ahlfeld cited for the session is one of a handful permitted under state open meetings law. But the public needs to know why that reason was selected, Mr. Freeman said.
If a board member just states one of the permitted criteria for an executive session, and provides no further explanation, the public doesnt know whether the session is legal or not, Mr. Freeman said.
The courts have said you cant simply regurgitate the statute of the law, Mr. Freeman said.
Mr. Ahlfeld said there was nothing illegal or wrong about the executive session he called for. The session fit like a glove into the reason he provided beforehand.
But he declined to explain why, because that would reveal what happened behind closed doors.
There was nothing being hidden ... There were no rules violated, Mr. Ahlfeld said. I cant talk about what happened in executive session.
Mayor James F. Hidy echoed Mr. Ahlfelds sentiments. Mr. Currier and Mr. Fayad were not there to talk about general positions, Mr. Hidy said.
Quite honestly, I dont know why they were there, he said.
After last weeks meeting, Mr. Hidy said the session was needed because there were a couple of contractual things we wanted to get straightened out before completing further hiring.
Current union contracts not being actively negotiated also must be discussed in public. But Mr. Hidy clarified Monday that the contractual issue to which he alluded was about a particular individual.
He said he was not initially sure why Mr. Ahlfeld called the meeting. But as the session took place it appeared to fit the criteria for a closed-door meeting, he said.
At the time, I didnt feel there was any need to leave, he said. The whole meeting caught me by surprise.