JACKSON -- An executive session at Wednesday's board meeting may have violated Open Meetings Law, which could result in a minor court sanction if a citizen were to file a grievance.
The board unanimously approved an executive session after the public and board members discussed a second controversial law that would make English the official language for the town.
"We didn't announce our intentions properly," said Supervisor Alan Brown in a telephone interview Thursday, noting the board had no intention of trying to get around the law. "I allowed us to be not be meticulous."
The town has already passed a law that makes English the official language for all municipal work and business. Brown said it has been filed with the New York secretary of state, putting the law into effect.
The second law, Local Law No. 2 of 2010, contains more comprehensive specifications. The board has yet to vote on that matter.
Board member Roger Meyer introduced the motion for executive session as a way "to discuss a legal matter," which prompted one resident to promptly ask the board for a reason.
"The rationale is that the town has been threatened with a lawsuit, which would be the grounds to go into executive session," Brown said before the vote to do so.
However, the state Committee on Open Government, which deals with the public's right to public meetings and documents through advice and advisory opinions, has issued statements that say government actions like Jackson's violate the law.
Under Open Meetings Law, government bodies may go behind closed doors under some exemptions, one of which is for "discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation."
But in one case often cited by the committee, Weatherwax v. Town of Stony Point, a court found that believing a matter would lead to litigation does not justify a board declaring an executive session.
Jackson's possible lawsuit stems from a New York Civil Liberties Union letter in April in regards to the first English-only law that said, "We also believe that the Ordinance invites individual litigation from citizens and organizations whose constitutional rights are affected by the Ordinance."
Brown said Thursday that the town needed to discuss the legal strategy for the laws because the letter essentially asked the town to repeal Local Law No. 1, or the New York Civil Liberties Union would litigate.
"If we adopted Local Law No. 2, it would have repealed Local Law No. 1. So they are intertwined," Brown said Thursday.
At Wednesday's meeting, Shushan lawyer Lewis Steele spoke during a public comment portion, and noted that Alaska's English-only law led to litigation it lost, requiring payment in excesses of $521,000.
After Wednesday's meeting, Brown said the town had not been served in court on the law.
Citizens can take the open meeting matter to court, which can award a penalty of mandatory attendance for public meeting training sessions.
State legislators attempted to give courts the ability for enforcing up to a $500 penalty, but Gov. David Paterson vetoed the bill in 2009. Among his reasons to dismiss the bill, he cited that taxpayers would have to pay for the penalty.
At the meeting, Brown asked the attendees about the board's transparency after a resident asked if there would be more public comment periods or if the board would just discuss things.
"Well you just had a secret meeting," Steele said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Brown said Open Meetings Law allows executive sessions unless the board commenced it "imperfectly."
"I didn't say it wasn't allowed for, and I don't have any comment on whether it was done perfectly or not, but it was a bad time to do that," Steele said.