By Lisa Scott, President, LWV of Suffolk County
(with changes to make it appropriate for Nassau County)
The League of Women Voters (LWV) has a strong commitment to open government and civic engagement. Protecting our right to know is integral to the health of our democracy.
One important way to ensure that decisions are made with public input and oversight is for citizens to observe government meetings.
New York State’s Open Meetings Law, often known as the Sunshine Law, went into effect in 1977. Amendments that clarify and reaffirm your right to hear the deliberations of public bodies became effective in 1979. In brief, the law gives the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to the debates and watch the decision-making process in action. It requires public bodies to provide notice of the times and places of meetings and keep minutes of all action taken.
The Open Meetings Law provides the public with the right to attend meetings of public bodies, but it is silent concerning the ability of members of the public to speak or otherwise participate. Although public bodies are not required to permit the public to speak at their meetings, many have chosen to do so. In those instances, it has been advised that a public body should do so by adopting reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally. (Learn more about the Open Meetings Law at www.dos.ny.gov/coog/right_to_know.html.)
To start exercising your rights, go to a government meeting as an observer so that you become familiar with the procedures and rules and the issues. Acquaint yourself with the protocols for public comment, so that you can speak to these issues when appropriate.
In order to encourage every County resident to become familiar with their elected officials, the LWV of Nassau County compiles and prints an annual booklet called “They Represent You, A Directory of Public Officials;” which is a guide to elected federal, state, county, town and local officials. You’ll know how to contact them, since addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, websites, and even salaries and terms of office are included.
They Represent You (TRY) includes a map of County legislative districts and a list of County legislative committees with members, meeting days and times. TRY can be viewed by visiting www.lwveastnassau.org. State, county, town, village, library and school district websites are good sources for general, committee and board meeting schedules, as well as agendas for upcoming meetings and minutes of those that have already occurred.
Local media (newspapers and community websites) report on a great many issues and government meetings. However, you may have concerns about issues that are not covered by local media and should take responsibility to observe and participate when these issues are discussed at government meetings. Be an informed, engaged citizen and participate. Democracy is not a spectator sport!