Niagara Gazette — For many years in the city of Niagara Falls, a majority of city council members have gathered in between scheduled, publicly announced bi-monthly meetings for dinners at local restaurants.
In what has evolved into something of a tradition, the cost for the meals has been covered by taxpayer dollars.
When asked for his opinion on the legality of the meetings by the Niagara Gazette, the state’s leading expert on open government rules — Robert J. Freeman — questioned the practice, especially when it involves a group of city lawmakers representing the council majority and when the cost of their meals are being covered with city funds.
“We generally assume that when the majority of a council has gathered that the open meeting law applies,” said Freeman, the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government.
Any gathering of a public body where a majority of elected or appointed members are present forms a quorum — the minimum number of members required to conduct public business. Under state law, such gatherings are to be announced to the press one week in advance and be posted in a public space at least 72 hours ahead of time.
Freeman said that since city taxpayers are picking up the tab for the council meals, the conclusion can be made that lawmakers must be conducting city business while eating out together.
If during the course of their taxpayer-funded dinners council members discuss anything related to city business and it is not protected by attorney client privilege, then Freeman believes those in attendance are in violation of the law.
“They can’t have it both ways,” Freeman said. “If the city is paying for the meals, one can only assume that the members of the council and other city officials would be there in the performance of their duties.”