Public shut out of Senate hearing; groups complain

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Seven good-government groups submitted a complaint Tuesday to the state Committee on Open Government after the public and some members of the news media were barred from a Senate Elections Committee public hearing on campaign financing.

Only senators, witnesses, legislative staff and some media were allowed in a Capitol meeting room for a public hearing on campaign finance reform Tuesday, inciting vocal protesters in the hallway to chant loudly: “Let the people in!”

As the meeting began, several Democratic senators objected to the committee’s decision to block the public from attending, suggesting that the hearing be moved to a larger room. Sens. Cecilia Tkaczyk of Duanesburg, Schenectady County, Diane Savino of Brooklyn and Liz Krueger of Manhattan denounced the meeting as undemocratic.

Republican leaders responded that the public would be able to watch the meeting through its live webcast and commented that the protesters in the hallway were being disruptive.

The demonstrators, who held signs in support of public financing, at times drowned out the witnesses who were testifying during the hearing with their cries.

After about an hour, a small group began protesting outside a window that opened to the Capitol lawn, whisper-chanting and heckling lawmakers. Security closed the window in the response, and state troopers asked the protesters to leave, before the hearing continued.

The groups that complained, including New York Public Interest Research Group, Citizen Action of New York and Common Cause of New York, argued that the Senate’s conduct violated public meeting laws.

“This morning, the Senate Elections Committee commenced a public hearing on public financing of elections. Members of the Senate Elections Committee and/or staff reportedly directed sergeants-at-arms to deny entry to interested members of the public,” the complaint said. “This was done despite the room being well below capacity at the start of the hearing. (Several photos taken by reporters at this time showed there was plenty of remaining space).

“Nonetheless, sergeants-at-arms barred public entry claiming the room was filled to capacity. Several sergeants-at-arms were asked if members of the public could enter if some of those already in the room were to leave. They said “no.” When told this was in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, one sergeant-at-arms claimed to simply be following orders from the Committee. This suggests an intentional violation by the Elections Committee of the Senate Rules and the Open Meetings Law,” the complaint continued.

The groups urged the open government committee to investigate the “breach.”

Here is a video showing some of the commotion:

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