A recent meeting about Mohawk Valley Health System's planned downtown hospital is causing controversy.
UTICA — A recent meeting about Mohawk Valley Health System’s planned downtown hospital is causing controversy.
On July 31, members of the Utica Common Council and some Oneida County legislators met with health system officials and Mohawk Valley EDGE representatives to discuss the parking garage to accompany the health system’s $480 million project that is planned for the city’s Columbia-Lafayette streets neighborhood.
Some, however, have expressed concern that the meeting, which wasn’t publicized, should have been a public meeting and residents allowed to attend.
Brett Truett, co-founder of #NoHospitalDowntown, called the meeting “illegal” and said that some people reached out to Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, about the matter.
“Whenever you have a body of government officials in a single place listening to, talking to, considering the people’s business and there is a quorum, whether they shook hands or nodded, it doesn’t matter,” Truett said. “If they were all at Tom Cavallo’s paradoxically for beer and they started talking, ‘Hey, what do you think about the hospital?' You’re not supposed to do that. There's laws against that.”
Freeman, however, said it's not clear any law was broken, given the circumstances.
The city's Common Council has 10 members, including Council President Mike Galime. Galime said that Councilman Joe Marino, D-4, sent individual council members an invitation to the meeting from EDGE President Steve DiMeo. Ultimately, Councilwoman Samantha Colosimo-Testa, R-6, was the only council member not in attendance, he said.
"Councilman Marino and Steve DiMeo worked together to try to get as many council people in a room to discuss city business," Galime said. "We ended up in a quorum because of the person who did the invites. That was a closed-door meeting that was an attempt to discuss public business. It was an attempt. The legality is besides the point. Even if it was legal, it was still inappropriate. That's my problem with it. Even if it was legal the intent was inappropriate."
Marino said he received a message that the health system wanted a meeting, so he passed it along to others to make sure everyone had the information.
"My obligation was to make sure I didn't have any ... information that no one else did," Marino said. "So we were going for an informational forum. I had no idea who was going to be there, quite honest with you, and that's the God's honest truth."
DiMeo said the council took care of who it would invite and that he didn't know who was going to come from the council.
"There was nothing discussed in that meeting that hadn't been discussed when I met with the (council's Economic Development Committee) a week earlier or had been in the paper already," said DiMeo.
But was the most recent meeting done inappropriately?
"The council president indicated that, yes, there was indeed a majority present but that the notice of this gathering went out individually to the members and that they did not necessarily know whether other members were going to be present," said Freeman, from the state Committee on Open Government. "That’s what he told me. I have to assume that he’s telling the truth, and in a situation like that if you don’t know that a quorum is going to be present why would you give notice?
"If that’s what it was," Freeman continued, "it doesn’t seem to me that there would have been an intent, if you will, to circumvent the Open Meetings Law."
Councilman John Jacon, D-3, said he didn't consider the meeting to be an official meeting of the council. He said that at that point, he had "no way of knowing how many other council people had been invited."
"So in my mind, it was just an opportunity for us to gather some information on what the county's position was for potential funding of the garage and to get more information from Mohawk Valley Health System," Jacon said. "When we got to the meeting and we saw the number of council people who were there, we were very careful ... to make sure that we didn't speak in any kind of way that could be construed as taking any official positions on behalf of the city or making any kind of promises or statements of resolution."
But the bottom line, Galime said, was that they were asked to deliberate.
"We were asked to discuss city business as a body," he said, "and I had to reiterate Open Meetings Law in the meeting to ensure that we did not."
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