Using the Open Meetings Law update to your advantage in the SLA process

With the presidential elections now upon us, the general public is excited to either (1) finally put democracy to use by voting; (2) finally see and hear an end to political campaigning; or (3) finally be able to enjoy both. I have been witness to several (occasionally heated) political conversations lately, and my general observation is that healthy debate – the kind that makes you think twice (admittedly or not) about the other side of the coin – requires access to honest information. Often what is most annoying about political ads is not that they are taking place of the otherwise thought-provoking sales gimmicks for the newest toys or greatest household cleaners (I mean, who doesn’t want to see Febreeze turn garbage and dirty laundry into roses and dewdrops?), but because their overly-dramatic, fact-spinning approach eventually leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths and unable to understand what the real issues are.

With this in mind, I came across an article in a recent issue of the Women’s Bar Association of New York publication about an update on the Open Meetings Law and I thought about how perfectly it fit into today’s political climate. The Open Meetings Law, according to the Department of State,

is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it. (§100)

In line with this philosophy, the DOS added §103(e) “Access to Records Discussed at Meetings,” which went into effect on February 2, 2012. It requires all public bodies to make available records that can be obtained under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) or are a proposed change in policy, law, or regulation that will be discussed in an open meeting.

This is a great change for the clients we service in our liquor law practice area, whether in obtaining a license or representing them in disciplinary hearings. Open Meetings Law now requires that the SLA make FOIL records or policy changes that will be discussed at an open meeting of the Commissioners to be available upon request prior to or at the meeting. The Law also provides that since the SLA maintains a website, the records should be posted online prior to the meeting.

Those who are familiar with NYSLA licensing procedures know that certain types of application (corporate changes and liquor store licenses, for example) have to go before the Full Board for final determination. The applicant should be notified by mail of the scheduled date of review and is given an opportunity to submit additional information to support the application. The Open Meetings Law would allow the applicant (or the attorney) to review the information that will be provided to the Board before the meeting takes place. Knowing what the SLA staff will present and recommend will help decide if any rebuttal should be submitted for consideration. The same holds true for licensees facing disciplinary proceedings.

Information is empowering, but SLA Examiners do not share what they will be presenting to the Board. Some cases are routine, while others may be red-flagged for an unforeseen potential issue. Most people seek a license because alcohol sales are the driving force behind the business’s success. When the license is on the line – either as an applicant or in a disciplinary proceeding, having access to information that could help you strategize and tip the scales in your favor is extremely important. Being left in the dark is an uncertain risk that most business owners are not willing to take, so knowing that you have access to – and that you are entitled to – information that can affect the Board’s decision is something that everyone should take advantage of.

Be proactive! Check the SLA’s website (Full Board meeting agendas are posted in the Events Calendar). A FOIL request can be made to the SLA by calling 518-474-3114 (option 3) or e-mail [email protected].