October 03, 2007
In East Hampton: Town Violates Sunshine Law
East Hampton Town violated the New York State Freedom of Information Law on Monday, according to Camille Jobin-Davis, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government.
Even though it had been submitted to him, Town Clerk Fred Overton refused to share copies of Supervisor Bill McGintee's tentative budget until the rest of the town board got its copies, which were to be distributed as The Independent went to press yesterday. "I don't think anyone else should have it before the town board," he said.
"That's not grounded in the law," Jobin-Davis said. According to section 87(2) (g) of the Freedom of Information Law, "any intra or inter-agency records that are statistical or factual in nature are required to be made available upon request."
By law the supervisor's tentative budget must be filed with the town clerk on or before September 30. Under what's known as the McKinley Law, the clerk has until October 5 to present the budget to the town board. The law makes no mention of withholding the document from the public until the town council receives it.
Would other towns do that? "Oh heaven's no," said Lydia Tortora, assistant to Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. The budget in that North Fork Town is available to the public as soon as it is stamped into the town clerk's office.
Same deal in Riverhead, Southampton and Shelter Island, where Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar said, "We never heard of that policy."
"Once it is filed here, if someone walks in, I just give them a copy of whatever they need because it's a public document," Diane Carpenter of the Southampton Town Clerk's office said. Riverhead Town Clerk Barbara Grattan echoed the view: "Once the budget is filed, it becomes a public record."
By law, the supervisor's tentative budget must be filed with the town clerk on or before September 30. This year, because September 30 fell on a Sunday, the extension of an additional day was given.
Refusing to give The Independent access to the tentative budget on Monday, Overton said it was the policy of the McGintee administration to hold the budget in abeyance until the town board received it. It wasn't the policy last year. The deadline fell on a Saturday. Overton shared the tentative budget with The Independent on September 29, moments after McGintee submitted it to him.
"This is unbelievable," Len Bernard, one time town budget officer exclaimed on Monday. Bernard served as town comptroller in Brookhaven for several years and was at the helm of the budget office in East Hampton during the Schneiderman administration, from 2000 until 2004. Before that he was a member of the town board, as well as a candidate for supervisor way back in 1991. "I have institutional knowledge back to the '90s, I never heard of such a thing. The budget is always available to the public."
In fact, Bernard recalled that in 1991 Supervisor Tony Bullock's budget called for a 20 percent take hike. Bernard, who was running against Bullock said, "That didn't stop him from giving it to me when I asked. Tony Bullock was man enough to have that budget released right on the 30th. I can vividly remember it."
In 2004, Overton was reluctant to release McGintee's very first tentative budget. However, The Independent was able to persuade the clerk to offer up a copy as it was given to the town board. The Independent was there when Councilman Pete Hammerle opened the document, saw that it called for a 25 percent tax hike said, "This can't be right," and took off for the town budget officer's office.
A second, and then a third tentative budget were produced the following Monday, correcting multi-million dollar errors made in the original version, which would have meant a whopping 34 percent increase for village residents had it gone through unaltered.
Errors ran the gamut from a $175,000 addition error to the failure to use updated assessed valuation figures to determine the tax rate. Legislator Jay Schneiderman called McGintee's first budget, "an embarrassment of incompetence."
Rick Murphy, the Co-Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of The Independent assumed McGintee wanted to spin the budget at a public hearing before the Independent had a chance to study it. "We have experienced reporters to analyze the document. He's hoping the other newspapers will just print whatever he says as fact. We stopped believing that act a long time ago."
A detailed analysis of the budget will appear in next week's issue.