OPEN LETTER: New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority Violations of New York State Open Meeting Law

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This open letter was sent over the weekend to City Manager Charles B. Strome and copied to all members of the City Council.

As you all know, I have made a mission of bringing greater transparency and accountability to public agencies in New Rochelle with a particular focus on FOIL and OML.

For those who know their history, you know that there were two particular changes made in our form of government from that of England at the time of the American Revolution -- British citizens were not allowed to attend parliament and were not allowed to obtain records of the business of parliament. Our Constitution specifically addressed these two points as anyone who has sat in the visitors galleries at the U.S Capitol can tell you.

Our Republic is constructed to rely upon an informed electorate to make decisions on who should represent them in government. An informed electorate requires access to public records and public meetings as well as a robust, independent press to promulgate information derived from those records and meetings. FOIL and OML are thus the linchpins upon which rests the legitimacy of any government agency in our country.

Since founding Talk of the Sound in 2008, and constantly agitating on the issue, and gaining support from various elected and appointed officials, including some on this email, New Rochelle has made great strides with regard to FOIL and OML. While there is still work to be done, the progress has been marked. For example, from one in 2008, today every single public meeting (city, school district) is video taped, broadcast live and on tape and archived online...save one.

The New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority has a $4mm budget, controls tens of millions of dollars in property and services over 2,000 residents including the elderly, special needs persons, veterans and other groups not to mention many families with young children.

Yet they operate almost completely in the dark without respect for FOIL or OML.

Who is Elisa Singer?

In discussions with some of you there is a tendency to throw up your hands and say "we have nothing to do with the housing authority".

Of course, that is not remotely true.

  • 5 of the 7 commissioners are appointed by the City Manager, a super-majority
  • The City provides funding and services which is, in turn, funded by taxpayers
  • The Heritage Homes is built upon City property contributed to the project
  • The City provides roads and other infrastructure
  • The City provides policing, fire and paramedic services
  • All of those things are provided by taxpayer money
  • Every resident in a NRMHA is a New Rochelle resident, your constituents

My intention here is not to address the content of the function of the NRMHA as a whole - policy decisions, building maintenance, funding decisions, contracting of services, etc. - but rather the form of the NRMHA board and the commitment of the board to FOIL and OML. I view my mission is to make it not just possible but easy for the public to see what a public body does and then form their own opinions and act on them as appropriate.

The City can help in several ways.

1. Formally notify the NRMHA that the City expects the NRMHA to comply with the letter and spirit of FOIL/OML including some, if not all, of the recommendations in my article including those that go beyond the law such as not serving food and drinks during the meeting or putting board member information on line.

2. Offer to subsidize OML compliance by the NRMHA by hosting their public meetings in City Hall and to integrate their meetings into the existing system of broadcasting and archiving video of those meetings on the City's cable access channels and web site.

3. Set some requirements regarding the future appointment of Commissioners including a form of term limits - 4 commissioners have been on the board for more than 10 years, one for 24 and - and require some enforceable commitment to support FOIL/OML.

4. Promise that no incumbent commissioners will be re-appointed unless the FOIL/OML requirements of the City Manager (and by implication all of you) are fully implemented by the end of this year, starting with not re-appointing Dr. Woods, whose term ends in March 2015.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I am happy to answer any questions.

Robert Cox

PS. Before anyone asks, of course, I know who Steve Horton is. Whatever anyone thinks, including him, it is the board that sets policy not the executive director and these are all policy issues.

For those readers who share these concerns that the NRMHA comply fully with OML and FOIL and wish to take action, I would encourage you to (1) contact the City Manager, the Mayor and City Council Members on this topic and respectfully express your concerns; and (2) join me at the next NRMHA meeting scheduled for July 14 at 5 pm at 50 Sickles Avenue in New Rochelle.

UPDATE: Looks like I will not be along at the 7/14 meeting.

From: SANCHEZ Martin
Subject: Meeting of the NRMHA July 14th at 5PM
Date: June 17, 2014 at 10:05:50 AM EDT
To: "cstrome@newrochelleny.com" , "sdh@nrmha.org"
Cc: "robertcox@talkofthesound.com" , "David Montoya"

Good Day,
 
I will be attending the July 14th NRMHA meeting at 5PM at your office. Please let me know if I am able to ask questions on the following items (giving you a heads up so that perhaps answers are provided then):
 
· Number and percentage of Latino Families in NRMHA unites in facilities in New Rochelle (non-section 8):
· Number and percentage of Latino families in the newly built Lincoln apartments;
· Number of Latino employees (both FT and PT) in the NRMHA.
 
Thanks,
 
Martin Sanchez
New Rochelle, NY

Begin forwarded message:

From: "Capozi, Virginia"
Subject: NRMHA
Date: June 17, 2014 at 10:03:27 AM EDT
To: "cstrome@ci.new-rochelle.ny.us" "

Mr. Strome:

I am deeply concerned with the recent exposure of the NRMHA deficiencies. I would like to know why this body is not complying with OML and FOIL regulations. As a taxpayer, I am disheartened by the complete and total arrogance of this legislative body. Could you please explain why regulations are not being adhered to and compliance is not being met with regards to OML and FOIL?

Sincerely,

Ginny Capozi

Virginia Capozi

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

Brian Sussman on Wed, 06/18/2014 - 20:22

Bob, you wrote "British citizens were not allowed to attend parliament and were not allowed to obtain records of the business of parliament."

I know American and British history very well, and I never have heard of that problem with 18th century UK parliament, nor of American complaints about it.

Obviously, most American colonists could not attend Parliament as it was an ocean away. Generally, what Americans are taught are simply that American colonists were not represented in Parliament.

As I am very interested in British and American history, I wonder if you provide me a source for the lack of any public access to 18th century parliament proceedings, and a source for that being an issue to Americans during our Revolution?

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Thu, 06/19/2014 - 18:19

Brian,

As is so often the case, you become distracted by a sidebar in an article, ignore the actual topic addressed by the article, and seek out a "debate" in which you can demonstrate some imagined expertise to "prove" that you are "right" about some tangent of that sidebar of that article related to that topic in the hopes of "proving" the author you are responding to is "wrong". And then what happens from there is not clear.

The topic here is the failure of the NRMHA to abide by the Open Meeting Law.

If you are care to address the actual topic, I would be interested.

Instead, you seek to imply in a passive/aggressive manner that you know what you are talking about and, by extension, that I do not.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

Now, I am not going to do homework for you just because you SAY you know American and British history very well when quite obviously you do not. I suggest you visit the New Rochelle public library and educate yourself.

What I am willing to do is verbally "bitch slap" you in the hope that you might appreciate that I am much smarter than you, better educated and do not write or speak on topics when I am not sure of the topic.

So, here we go...

Go run off to the library and find a book on British Parliamentary history. Read through it until you get to the part where, in the years immediately preceding the American revolution, the British Parliament was a highly secretive body. You will then find this slowly began to change starting in 1771 following a particular case involving the Mayor of London and then evolved over the next few decades.

You will see how, for most of the18th century, British citizens were not allowed to observe debate and no record was made available of debate. The only thing that was available was the official record of the actions of the House AFTER THE FACT. In other words, a citizen could learn what the law was but now how it came to be.

In fact, the publication of remarks made in the House became a breach of Parliamentary privilege, punishable by the two Houses of Parliament. Penalties for publishing records of remarks included fines and jail.

Traditions of self-governance evolved differently in the American colonies, reflecting , in part, the way in which churches and pastors “governed” communities. There was more community involvement albeit limited to white, male, landowners and an expectation that colonists were not only entitled to know how they were being governed but have a direct say in it.

The Founders were influenced by a wide range of political science theory, tradition, including past practice in the British Parliament, and more so there is no one document you can read to understand the way in which freedom of information became one of the bedrock principles of democratic self governance and is a cornerstone of our conceptions of democracy.

That you are unaware of this is beyond my ability to cure.

James Madison, who authored the original draft of the Bill of Rights, said:

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

Read more here (http://bit.ly/TaOKRV):

"The policy of public access to the government’s business can be traced back to the writings of those instrumental in the American Revolution and the founding of the new democracy. The principle that the government served the people and that it existed only with the knowledge and consent of the governed was encapsulated in the formation of the government and the Bill of Rights. The laws are based on the underlying principle that government business is the public’s business. Therefore, people have a fundamental right of access to that process and the information and records related to it."

Now I know you are just champing at the bit to find some phrase in my remarks to form the basis for a digression from my reply to your tangent about the sidebar of the article related to the topic but my interest here is a serious one about correcting egregious violations of OML at the NRMHA and protecting the public's right to know not engaging in diversions meant to do little more than make you feel better about yourself.

If you have some concerns or insight regarding the NRMHA and OML in the context of my reporting I am interested. Otherwise, not.

Brian Sussman on Mon, 06/23/2014 - 23:41

Bob,

I have always treated you fairly, but lately I have encountered a rude and insulting attitude from yourself, towards me. Generally, I ignore that attitude, hut refrain from responding to your inappropriate rebuttals to my own comments, as I respect that this is your own website. But I must respond this time.

Regarding the governments of the USA, NYS and City of New Rochelle, all three governments ultimately exist under the US Constitution. All three governments do have many non-public executive sessions. And Congress does have many non-public legislative committee sessions, at least when national security is claimed. Privacy issues are also a basis of denial of FOIL. Under both Federal and NYS law, Freedom of Information requests will generally be denied regarding executive sessions and privacy issues.

Regarding the government of New Rochelle, we only have a two-branch government of legislature and judicial. There is no independent executive branch, as the City Manager is appointed, not elected, and serves at the pleasure of the City Council. New Rochelle’s ‘executive sessions’ exist within the legislative City Council. NR governmental executive sessions are beyond the requirements of FOIL requests, and probably that is also true of the NR Board of Education. Therefore, your recourse to denial of such FOIL requests are NY Supreme Court Article 78 actions.

I had read the entire article “OPEN LETTER: New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority Violations of New York State Open Meeting Law”. As I agree that the government should always rapidly comply with Freedom of Information requests, I had little to comment on in that regard, except for what I just written above.

However, I am very knowledgeable on American. British and World History (and New Rochelle History), perhaps a bit more than yourself.

But there are certainly historic things I am uninformed in, and you had raised one of them, so I asked for a source of information on 18th Century UK forbidding public viewing of Parliamentary procedures. And I asked for a source of information on that being a basis of the American Revolution / creation of American Constitution’s Bill of Rights. That is one of the topics you wrote of, and the topic I ask for more information.

Although that topic was incidental to your main topic of responding to Freedom of Information requests, you ironically ended up doing exactly what you are critical of, which is that you avoided providing the information that I freely requested of you.

I cannot imaging why you have denied me any specific historical citation to a fair and appropriate request, unless you yourself don’t have any source for your statement regarding either/or both 18th Century Parliament’s refusal to allow public observance of its proceeding and/or of the American Revolutionaries guaranteeing public observance of Congressional proceedings because specific to Parliament’s refusal to do so.

I am not saying you are mistaken, but rather that you have made a declaration regarding both UK and USA history that I am otherwise unaware of. Certainly, if you have such knowledge, there is no reason for you to not provide it.

You responded “Instead, you seek to imply in a passive/aggressive manner that you know what you are talking about and, by extension, that I do not.”

But, actually I did the opposite, and instead indicated I had no knowledge of historic facts you alleged, and asked you to educate me and the public, by providing the information that you alleged “For those who know their history” is aware of. Actually, I believe very few people (if anyone) who knows history is aware of what you declare most historically aware people are supposedly aware of. So please provide me a basis of your assertion regarding UK Parliament. If you do know this to be true, why wouldn’t you document it upon request?

At any rate, I assure you that anyone truly interested in history, pays close attention to ‘sidebars’ and other incidental statements. History shares something with Science, which is the continuous need to be documented, reviewed, questioned, resulting in restatement or correction. I’m surprised that is not your own attitude, to all statements posted at TOTS, including your own. Your failure to provide the information I legitimately requested, and to inappropriately criticize my raising an appropriate question, indicates it is you, not me, who has exhibited a “passive/aggressive manner”.

I am not about to do your historic research for you. I have read your opinion, couched as historic fact, if you are unable to document it, with an actual historic source. You may well be right in your assertion, and probably are, but without an actual citation from you, I cannot help but to wonder if your assertion is actual fact.

But I have gone as fare as to do google the topic, using part of your quote. Wikipedia partially supports your statement as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hansard but one cannot fully depend on the reliability of Wikipedia. But that link has a quote you used, leading me to believe that your own source is Wikipedia. That’s at least a start, but you could have provided that link yourself, instead of deliberately insulting me.

You falsely stated “That you are unaware of this is beyond my ability to cure.” Actually you could have cured it easily. If you know what your are writing about, it means you have the ability to provide me with a specific book or historic document. So what does it mean if you refuse to document what you state? I do appreciate your quote of James Madison, but there is nothing in that quote indicating it was a reference to Parliament or to Parliament’s supposed refused to allow public proceeding of its procedures.

I looked up James Madison’s quote, and I see no direct relation between it and Parliament. Most likely it relates to the 1st Amendment’s rights to free speech, a free press and assembly. However, nowhere in the US Constitution is there a public right to freedom of information, other than the right to observe those legislative sessions that are held in public Madison’s concept was that our democracy depended on Congress being able to question the executive branch. But Madison wasn’t so interested in the rights of individuals to make such requests of the executive branch.

Indeed, Madison’s idea of Democracy was to allow white men only, direct vote of the members of the House of Representatives, but without popular vote of elections to President or the US Senate. Senators were not elected by popular vote of men, until the early 20th century, and the President is still not elected by popular vote.

Freedom of Information requests by the public is a modern concept, unknown to our founding fathers. The federal Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1966.

Here is a link to NYS Public Officer Law Art 7, the Open Meeting Law, for everyone, in public and in the government, to read:

http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/openmeetlaw.html

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Wed, 06/25/2014 - 18:09

"I cannot imaging why you have denied me any specific historical citation to a fair and appropriate request"

Imagine this...

I have better things to do.

If you do not believe what I wrote then your are free not to believe it. If you want to research the topic then go ahead. But you have no reason to expect a reply just because you imagine something is important.

I wrote about the NRMHA. My interest is to better serve the public by highlighting deficiencies. Your interest seems to be mentally pleasuring yourself with inane digressions into some rabbit hole of your own making about a topic of interest solely to you.

Expect to be criticized whenever you digress from the topic. As we have discussed, there is a thin line between debate and trolling and you have crossed it before and are crossing it now.

Trolls are suspended from the site so choose your next words carefully.

John D'Alois on Tue, 06/24/2014 - 05:29
Laura Case on Tue, 06/17/2014 - 20:22

This is ridiculous, and is definitely another issue that is contributing to homelessness in New Rochelle. Section eight has been closed for years for the majority of applicants, and when it does open very few are informed or accepted. In addition many who have section eight vouchers in my community have trouble finding places to live and not much is being done to rectify that. Some of my friends have been on the waiting list for two years or more. MHA should be accountable to the public and publicly accessible.

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