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Small Towns Masquerading as Democracies

by

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D.

Copyright 2024

Breaking news: Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign pits Americans who favor a citizen-based, democratic government against those who seek to centralize power in one man, manipulate election results and disregard the rule-of-law—a recipe for an authoritarian, strong-man, form of government in Washington.

Old news: Elected officials in many of New York State’s 932 town governments have already concentrated power; are well-insulated from ballot box accountability; and are free to avoid compliance with state-mandated open government laws.

Not to be confused with “autocracy,” (rule by an autocrat), as used in this paper, the term, “authocracy,” (pronounced auth.oc.racy) is defined as a so-called democratic unit of government that, in fact, exhibits the traits of an authoritarian organization, including: the centralization of power; the illusion of competitive elections; and disregard for open government practices. 

What happened to Thomas Jefferson’s belief that the purest form of democratic self-rule is found at the grass roots; in small, rural towns?  In 2020, 574 of the 932 New York towns had a population less than 4,000.

Here is how basic principles of American democratic government—separation of powers, rule of law and ballot box accountability—have been replaced in New York towns with a form of authoritarian rule.

Consolidation of Powers

During the writing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, separation of powers was a key component in the framers’ design of limited government.  James Madison wrote, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Separation of powers does more than limit the accumulation of powers in each branch of government.  Equally important, it is the vehicle by which public officials are held accountable for their actions.  With powers divided among three independent branches—each branch serves as a check, a restraint, on the actions of the other two branches.

In practice, these power-limiting checks include: the ability of the executive branch to veto bills passed by the legislature; the legislature’s power of approval of executive branch spending plans; and a judicial branch empowered to rule on the legality of executive branch and legislative branch actions.

Federal Government.

In Washington, for example, a federal court in 2014, ruled that the House of Representatives had the authority to sue President Obama, claiming his administration’s health care payments to insurance companies were not legal. Why, because the expenditures were not specifically appropriated by the legislature for that purpose.

Recently, in court, former president Donald Trump has argued that, “The president is vested with the executive power.  The judicial branch may not sit in judgement, criminal or otherwise, over his exercise of that power.”  While Mr. Trump may accept the idea of separation of powers, he rejects the idea that separate branches of government can exercise checks on one another.

On February 6, 2024, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled, in United States v. Trump, that “At bottom former President Trump’s stance would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three Branches…We cannot accept that the office of the president places its former occupants above the law for all times thereafter…we act, ‘not in derogation of the separation of powers, but to maintain their proper balance.’”

New York State.

The three-branch model in Albany includes:  a two-chamber legislature consisting of the Assembly and the Senate; an elected governor serving as the chief executive of a 160,000-person executive branch; and a unified, statewide court system.

Governor Cuomo, in January 2017, vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have transferred certain legal costs, then borne by counties, to the state—an exercise of the executive branch checking the legislative branch.

Erie County.

Erie County’s three-branch government includes a single, 11-member chamber, county legislature; an elected executive officer in charge of the county’s 4,000-person executive branch; and the statewide, unified court system.

In July, 2016, Erie County executive, Mark Poloncarz, vetoed a legislature-approved bill proposing changes to the county’s charter.  Poloncarz told the Buffalo News that he opposed the bill because it would weaken his authority over the county attorney’s office and strengthen the legislature’s power by extending legislators’ terms in office from two to four years.

The introduction of the three-branch model in Erie County is a relatively recent event. On the Erie County Legislature’s website (accessed January 20, 2018) we learn that, “Up until 1961, legislative and executive powers in Erie County were combined in the Board of Supervisors…[but]…With the adoption of the Charter form of government in 1959, Erie County established a traditional form of legislative, executive and judicial separation of powers which is common to all other levels of government.”  (Emphasis added)  Well, as we shall see below, “all other levels of government” does not, in fact, include town governments in New York State.

The third leg of the American separation-of-powers model, providing checks on Erie County’s executive and legislative branches, is provided by State Supreme Courts.

Town Government

Unlike both New York State and Erie County, the structure of town governments in New York State does not include the traditional three-branch model.

Town citizens elect a town supervisor and four councilpersons to its legislative, law making body, the town board.  But that is where any resemblance to the three-branch model ends.

The New York Department of State, in its Local Government Handbook, (Sixth Edition, 2009, Reprinted, 2011) tells us, “The [New York] Town Law does not provide for a separate executive branch in town governments.  Because the supervisor occupies the leader’s position on the town board, and because town residents often turn to the supervisor with their problems, many people think the supervisor’s position is the executive position of town government.  But the supervisor is part of the legislative branch and acts as a member and presiding officer of the town board.  He or she acts as a full member of the board, voting on all questions and having no additional tie-breaking or veto power … The supervisor is more of an administrator than an executive.”

By law, the town supervisor is assigned a few additional duties, including, as the town treasurer, to account for the town’s monies and sell, lease and convey town properties when directed by the town board. These administrative duties do not, however, raise the status of the town supervisor to that of a one-person executive branch of government, or to the status of the town’s executive officer. In 1976 the state legislature amended the Town Law giving towns a major expansion of their home rule powers. According to the Local Government Handbook, “The purpose of this legislation was to allow towns to restructure their form of government to provide for an executive or administrative branch separate and apart from the legislative branch of government.  Offices such as town executive and town manager may be established and granted powers similar to those granted by counties, cities and villages to the offices of county executive or manager, city mayor or manager, and village mayor or manager.”

How many, if any, towns in New York State have created a separate executive branch of government is not known.  Apparently, no state agency collects this information.   With the exception of the Town of Amherst, I am not aware of any other town, especially smaller towns, to have done so.

Since officials in New York towns have had, for many years, the legal authority to create an executive branch, by not doing so, towns have purposefully elected to maintain the status-quo— the concentration of legislative and administrative powers in a single branch of government, the town board.

Because New York towns do not operate with an independent executive branch, there is no independent “check” on the town-level law creating process; no independent body empowered to evaluate whether or not proposed legislative actions are fair, equitable and constitutional.

Furthermore, the same five, part-time members of the elected town board—the town’s law making body—are given the power, without effective oversight, to implement, as they see fit, the very laws they have, also without oversight, created.

The Judicial Branch.  At first glance, town-level courts in New York give the illusion that the third leg of the American three-branch model is at work in New York towns.  Upon closer examination, this is not the case.

The Justice Court Manual, published by the Unified Court System in 2015, promotes the need for three independent branches of government, but also makes it clear that, at the town level of government, local town Justice Courts do not have the authority to serve as an effective check against improper actions taken by members of the town’s legislative branch, the town board.

The Manual, in a section titled, ‘Separation of Powers,’ tells us, “Preserving separation-of-powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches is essential to our system of government.  The United States Constitution and the New York State Constitution both require that no one branch of government be allowed to dominate the others: only by each branch fulfilling its proper roles can the three branches together ‘check and balance’ each other … Judicial independence and its protections are core features of the separation of powers, and apply as much to towns and villages as to other levels of government.”

The Manual, however, recognizes that while the separation of powers principle is relatively clear-cut at the federal and state levels of government, “…for New York towns and villages these separations sometimes can seem difficult to discern.”  Underscoring the illusion of separation of powers between the town boards and the town courts, the Manual states:

“Because the expense of operating a Justice Court is the responsibility of the town or village sponsoring it, the municipality hires and oversees the non-judicial personnel of the Justice Court, provides supplies and facilities, and is responsible for whatever other physical or human resources the court may require.  At the same time, the Justice Court is not a routine department or office of town or local government: it is part of a constitutionally different branch of government…

State law vests in localities themselves the day-to-day supervision, budgeting and control of Justice Courts.  Consistent with their home rule powers, towns and villages have substantial discretion and flexibility in how they discharge these responsibilities…They must administer their local courts consistent with principles of judicial independence and separation of powers…”

In another section of the Manual titled, ‘Town and Village Courts,’ we find that the jurisdiction of town courts is limited, that they are not empowered to function as an independent “check” on the actions of the town’s legislative branch:

“In general, Justice Courts are empowered to hear both civil and criminal cases, but are courts of limited jurisdiction in that they adjudicate only certain types of civil and criminal cases. On the civil side, Justice Courts hear money actions that do not exceed $3,000…On the criminal side, Justice Courts are local criminal courts with…the power to adjudicate misdemeanor and petty offenses, and arraign defendants in felony cases before they are transferred to a superior court.”

The ability of the judiciary to intervene in the law-making and law-implementation processes, to “check” the actions of the town board, is a key component of the separation of powers principle.  But, town courts, according to the Manual, “…do not have the power to grant provisional remedies such as injunctive powers, relative to town and village ordinances.”

Since town courts, unlike state courts, are unable to check questionable actions of town officials; unable to hold town officers accountable, another leg of the three-branch model is lost.

Town courts enforce town laws and ordinances against town citizens (e.g., zoning laws, traffic violations and dog licensing).  They do not, however, have the authority to protect citizens from their elected officials. They do not have the power to step in, and if justified, rule upon questionable town-initiated legislative or administrative actions.

Unlike New York’s State Supreme Court judges, town court judges, elected to four-year terms, hardly constitute an independent branch of government.  They depend on their affiliation with local political parties and other town officials to gain and retain their office.  In addition, many are not trained attorneys.

*****

Bottom line: It is an historical myth that small town governments in New York State are organized and operate in accord with American principles of democratic self-government.

Small New York State towns resemble more an authoritarian form of government—an authocracy—than a democratic government structured around the separation-of-powers principle.

Make-believe Elections

A good place to start is a review of what Syracuse University Professor Roscoe Martin had to say, long ago, about small town elections.  Here are a few passages from his 1957 book, Grass Roots: Rural Democracy in America.

Do Voters Choose? “With popular elections, democracy may prevail; without them, it surely cannot…If the contests are real rather than rigged, and if candidates present themselves in sufficient numbers to permit the voters reasonable choice, then…a long step toward the achievement of democracy” has been taken.

Are Campaigns Meaningful? Local elections campaigns must be “long enough to allow the issues and the candidates to be adequately presented…the candidate must be related to the issues.  The campaign, in short, must be meaningful.”

Are Elections Make Believe? “If the stakes which are presented to the voters at election time are negligible, then campaign and election are likely to be without significance and the public without interest. There is no more effective deterrence to vitality in democracy than the hollow observance of routine procedures.”

“If the electoral process is to be meaningful…the outcome of the election must be uncertain, otherwise issues will be spurious and candidates unreal.  What the people do must affect the result, else the whole election procedure is make-believe.”

Small Governments are Undemocratic. “It is unhappily true that the conditions of government in rural America are less hospitable to the development of a favorable climate of democracy than are those which prevail in other environments.  The principle reason is that little government does not have the substance to support a system which is or which can be really democratic. Rural government is ‘close to the people’…but it has little magic to stir men’s minds.  It is too picayune, too narrow in outlook, too limited in horizon, too self-centered in interests, to challenge the imagination or to enlist the support of the voter.  Grass-roots government is, in fine, too small to be truly democratic.”

How well do elections in Erie County, New York, in the Towns of Colden, Holland, Sardinia and Wales (See Map 1), stack-up against Professor Martin’s description of small-town elections?

Map 1 - The Study Area

The American two-party democracy rests on this principle: To perform their key role as voters, citizens require that elections provide a meaningful choice among candidates from competing political parties.  Only in this way, in a healthy democracy, can voters choose among the different governing goals and candidates promised by each political party.

In the absence of ballot box competition between political parties—pro-forma elections legitimize one-party rule and replace democracy with an authoritarian form of government.

Do local elections in southern Erie County, NY, in the Towns of Colden, Holland, Sardinia and Wales, offer citizens a choice between political parties and candidates promoting alternative views on public issues and citizen concerns?  Or, are local elections a pro-forma exercise to legitimize a single party’s grip on power?

What we find in southern Erie County may very well apply elsewhere in the state.  Population-wise, these four towns are representative of more than one-half of New York State’s 932 towns—each home to fewer than 4,000 citizens.

Registered Voters.

What can we learn from Table 1, Registered Voters, by Party Affiliation, 2013-2023?

First, registered voters are concentrated in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, while a fraction of registered voters are affiliated with other political parties.

Second, in each town, registered Republican Party voters far out-number registered Democratic Party voters.

Third, each town includes a sizable number of non-party affiliated voters.

(1) Independence Party candidate votes not reported separately but placed in the “Other Party” category, including the Working Family Party.

(2)  Registered voters not affiliated with a party.

Sources: Erie County Election Board; New York State Board of Elections

 

Elections in the Town of Colden

Nine elections were held in the Town of Colden between 2013 and 2023.  In only two elections were voters given a choice among party candidates; in seven elections this was not the case. (Please refer to Tables 2 and 3)

Supervisor Elections.  In 2013, the Republican nominated challenging candidate out-voted the incumbent supervisor nominated by the Conservative Party and the Colden Integrity Party.

In the 2017 election the supervisor, nominated by the Republican Party, was unchallenged and reelected.

In the 2021 election, the incumbent supervisor received 696 votes on the Republican Party line and 202 votes on the Conservative Party line. A challenger, representing the Integrity Party, received 128 votes.

Councilman Elections.  In 2013, both Republican Party nominated candidates—an incumbent and a new candidate—easily fended-off two Democratic Party candidates and a Colden Integrity candidate.

In the 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2023 elections Republican Party nominated incumbent candidates, and one new candidate, were unchallenged and easily won reelection.

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

Table 3

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

Elections in the Town of Holland

Nine elections were held in the Town of Holland between 2013 and 2023.  In only two elections were voters given a choice among different party candidates; in seven  elections this was not the case. (Please refer to Tables 4 and 5)

Supervisor Elections.  In the 2013 election, the incumbent supervisor, nominated by the Republican and Conservative Parties, easily beat a Write-in challenger.

The incumbent, nominated by the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform Parties, ran unchallenged and was reelected in 2017.

In 2021, an incumbent councilman, nominated by the Republican and Conservative Parties ran, unchallenged, and was elected town supervisor.

Councilman Elections. In the 2013 election, two incumbent councilpersons, both nominated by the Republican and Conservative Parties, ran unchallenged and were reelected.

Table 4

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

In 2015, two incumbent councilpersons, both nominated by the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform Parties, were reelected, defeating their challenger representing the Democratic and Working Families Parties.

In the 2017 election, a mirror image of 2015 election, two incumbent councilpersons, both nominated by the Republican, Conservative, Independence, and Reform Parties, were reelected, defeating their challenger representing the Democratic Party.

Table 5

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

Again in 2019, two incumbent councilpersons, both nominated by the Republican, Conservative and Independence Parties, were reelected.

Two new candidates, nominated by the Republican and Conservative Parties, were elected to the town board in 2021.

In a repeat of the 2019 election, the same two incumbent councilpersons, both nominated by the Republican and Conservative Parties, were reelected in 2023.

Elections in the Town of Sardinia

Nine elections were held in the Town of Sardinia between 2013 and 2023.  In six elections voters were given a choice among party candidates; in three elections this was not the case. (Please refer to Tables 6 and 7)

Both supervisor and councilmen races in Sardinia, often competitive, pitted candidates nominated by the Republican Party against candidates nominated by the Conservative party.

Supervisor Elections.  The 2013 supervisor election, was a contest between two non-incumbent candidates. The losing candidate was nominated by the Republican Party; the winning candidate by both the Conservative and the Independence Parties.

In both the 2017 and 2021 elections the incumbent supervisor ran unchallenged for reelection as a Republican Party candidate and was reelected.

Councilman Elections.  In the 2013 election three non-incumbent candidates—two nominated by the Republican Party and one by the Democratic Party—lost to a non-incumbent candidate and an incumbent candidate, both nominated by the Conservative and Independence Parties.

Table 6

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

Table 7

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

In 2015 an incumbent candidate and a non-incumbent candidate, both nominated by the Republican Party, lost to an incumbent and a non-incumbent candidate, both nominated by the Conservative Party.

The 2017 election looked a lot like a reverse of 2015.  An incumbent candidate and a non-incumbent candidate, both nominated by the Republican Party, won against two non-incumbent candidates nominated by the Conservative Party.

In 2019, two non-incumbent candidates, both nominated by the Republican Party, won against two incumbent candidates nominated by the Conservative Party.

Two unchallenged candidates were elected in the 2021 election; an incumbent and a non-incumbent, both nominated by the Republican Party.

In the 2023 election two non-incumbent candidates nominated by the Republican Party defeated an incumbent candidate nominated by the Conservative Party.

Elections in the Town of Wales

Twelve elections were held in the Town of Wales between 2013 and 2023.  In only one election were voters given a choice among party candidates; in eleven elections this was not the case. (Please refer to Tables 8 and 9)

Supervisor Elections. In all years, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021, and 2023, the unchallenged Republican candidate was reelected. (Unlike the other three towns, where the supervisor is elected for a four-year term, in Wales, supervisors are elected for two-year terms)

Councilman Elections.  In the 2013 election two Republican Party incumbent candidates were reelected.

Again, in the 2015 election, two Republican Party incumbent candidates were reelected.

In the 2017 election two candidates nominated by both the Conservative Party and Wales Leadership Party (one an incumbent and the other a new candidate) ran unchallenged and were elected.  The ballot did not contain a Republican Party candidate.

 

Table 8

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

Table 9

Source: Erie County (NY) Election Board

 

In 2019 two Republican Party candidates, one an incumbent and the other a new candidate, were elected. A challenger, a Conservative Party candidate, lost.

In 2021 two new Republican Party candidates were elected.  A Write-in challenger was defeated.

Two Republican Party candidates, one an incumbent and one a new candidate, were elected in 2023.

Elections Summary

Of the 39 town elections held between 2013 and 2023 voters had a choice among party candidates in 10 elections.  In 29 elections voters did not have a choice among party candidates.

According to Professor Martin, healthy, democratic local elections in small towns must,

  1. Ensure the voters, not the political parties, choose who will be elected to the supervisor and councilman positions in New York towns;
  2. Provide meaningful, competitive campaigns that inform, and allow, voters to make enlightened choices among party candidates;
  3. Avoid routine—two and four year—procedural observance of hollow, make-believe elections that fail to engage voters.

*****

Table 10, provides a summary of how well elections from 2013 to 2023 in the Towns of Colden, Holland, Sardinia and Wales staked up to Professor Martin’s election standards.

o  One political party, the Republican Party, controlled the selection of candidates presented on election ballots to town voters.  Republican Party candidates won in 89% of the 39 elections.

o  Voters did not have a choice among competing party candidates in:

87% of the supervisor elections.

70% of the councilman elections

o  The vast majority of local elections in the Towns of Colden, Holland and Wales can be classified as “Make-believe” elections, according to Professor Martin.  Only in the Town of Sardinia did the Republican Party face competition from Conservative (not Democratic) Party candidates.

Table 10

 Why One-party Elections?

At first glance, the distribution of registered voters in Table 1 confirms that the vast majority of town voters readily identify with the values and governing practices promoted by either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party.   Other political parties represent a small fraction of the voters in the four towns.

One might conclude from Table 1 that the Democratic Party—in response to its large voter base—would play a vigorous and vocal role in the local elections from 2013 to 2023.   But the Democratic Party is, effectively, absent in Table 10.

Here is a possible explanation of why the Democratic Party, with a large, registered voter-base, was virtually dormant 2013-2023.

Party Voters.  When small town citizens individually register to vote, they make a value-filled choice among the available parties.  Voter registration is more a declaration of civic values than a call for public action.  More liberal voters are likely to affiliate with the values promoted by the Democratic Party; more conservative voters with the values promoted by the Republican Party.

In small, rural towns, turning political values—especially Democratic Party values—into electable party candidates is difficult.  Democratic-leaning political activists seeking more democracy may flock to Washington and Albany, but they do not congregate in small, rural towns where citizens, affiliated with all political parties, seek peace and quiet and where less democracy feels about right.

Individuals who live in, or move to, small, rural towns may readily identify with a political party, but they do not feel a strong need for local elections to translate their expressed political values into control of town hall.

Why? Because most small town citizens are generally content with their government’s performance regardless who occupies town hall.  The bread-and-butter of small town governments—road work, trash pick-up and issuing building permits—are equally well performed by elected officials from either the Republican or the Democratic Parties.

Party Organization.  While each town possessed a large and potentially active Democratic Party campaigners and candidates, the weak or non-existent party structure was unable to generate the needed momentum among politically- content Democrats to win elections.

Because it is also hard for the Republican Party to energize new candidates, Republican Party incumbents are nominated for re-election again and again.  And, due to the Party’s sizable voter advantage, in strict, party line elections, Republican Party candidates will easily out-vote challengers.

To win elections, Democratic Party candidates would need to attract a large number of votes from Republican registered voters.  To do so, Democratic Party candidates would need the support of well-organized and staffed town-level Democratic committees to run an effective publicity campaign demonstrating why Republican Party voters should support Democratic candidates.

Since these resources are generally absent in small, rural towns, Democratic Party voters exist in an election wilderness where their participation is all but non-existent.

From 2013 to 2023, a key element in a healthy democracy—competitive, two-party elections—was not evident in the towns of Colden, Holland, Sardinia and Wales.  As summarized in Table 10, local elections are dominated by one-party; Republican Party incumbents are seldom challenged for reelection; and pro-forma elections rob voters of a meaningful choice among competing political party candidates.

Instead, elections are the means to create, maintain and legitimize a one-party form of political authocracy.

A two-party election facade—not the real thing—is found in the Town of Sardinia.  Two-parties, the Republican Party and the Conservative Party, give the appearance of competitive elections.  Candidates from the two parties do, in fact, compete for votes.

But, if the governing values and practices of the two parties—both conservative—are similar, voters are actually choosing among candidates representing near identical public policies.

What factors might contribute to both make-believe elections and to the Democratic Party’s failure to fulfill its traditional role in our two-party democracy?  Possible factors include:

o  The absence of hot-button issues for the Democratic Party to rally around;

o  Democratic voters are actually quite satisfied with the manner in which Republicans manage their towns;

o  Lack of public media coverage to expose governing blunders or abuse of power by Republican Party office holders;

o  Democratic registered voters are so out-numbered, they feel trying to win at the ballot box is useless.

o  Party loyalty prevents Republican Party voters to cross-over and vote for even well-qualified Democratic Party candidates.

One or more of these factors produce pro-forma, make-believe, elections that routinely reelect Republican Party incumbents year after year.

Rule of Law

In a rule-of-law democracy public officials do not decide what they can and cannot do in office.  Their duties and powers are spelled-out and limited to those specified in applicable laws.

Nationally, the rule of law principle covers a lot of ground; and calls on public officials to obey all applicable laws that define their duties in public office.  In this essay, however, “rule-of-law” is limited; specifically to how well, or poorly, local officials conduct town board meetings and put into practice New York State laws strengthening the participation of citizens in the governing process.

Ideally, in a healthy grass roots democracy, legal mandates directing locally elected officials to welcome informed citizens, their neighbors, into the conduct of the town’s business should not be needed.  Law abiding citizens, once elected to public office, should not need a kick-in-the-pants to open the door to their fellow citizens.

We can only hope elected town board members will faithfully carry-out, to the best of their abilities, the stated intentions of New York State statutes calling for greater citizens access to, and participation in, the town’s governing process.  But, according to research conducted by the New York Coalition for Open Government, this is not the case.

In the March 15, 2024 edition of the Buffalo News, Paul Wolf, president of the Coalition, said:

“We’ve documented in report after report that local governments are not posting meeting documents online as required by law, that Freedom of Information Law requests are not being responded to timely and in New York State, the real problem is there’s no penalties for not complying with the law.”

The Coalition is actively measuring thr impact of two laws originally enacted almost fifty years ago—the Open Meeting Law in 1976 and the Freedom of Information Law in 1974.  In both statutes, New York State legislators stated the need to strengthen the role of citizens in the governing process and to hold town officials accountable to the citizens they serve.

New York State’s Freedom of Information Law

“The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public…The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government…As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible…Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality…The legislature therefore declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article.”

New York State’s Open Meeting Law

“It 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.”

*****

In its April 20, 2023 report, New York Has an Open Government Crisis: We Need Reform Now, and its August 4, 2023 report, Silence is Not Golden: NY State Should Recognize the Public’s Right to Speak at Government Meetings, the Coalition found a widespread lack of official support for citizen access to the governing process.  Town actions to keep citizens informed and involved are being ignored or poorly performed.

The Coalition asks: “How can the public be aware what government officials are up to if meeting agendas and meeting documents are not posted online prior to a meeting? How can the public hold government officials accountable if Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests are not responded to timely…the whole point of the Open Meeting Law is that public business be performed in an open manner, so that citizens can observe the performance of government officials by being able to attend and listen to the deliberation and decisions that result in public policy…”

Statewide.  Based on its surveys, the Coalition found that:

In 2023, 22% of the state’s 932 towns did not allow public comments at town board meetings; and,

In 2022, 72% of the towns were not posting meeting documents online prior to holding town board meetings in which those documents will be discussed (Open Meeting Law amendment effective in 2010).

Locally.  Compared with these state-wide surveys, the Towns of Colden, Holland, Sardinia and Wales are, overall, doing better.  The Town of Wales appears to keep its citizens very well-informed and involved in the town’s decision-making process. The other towns, as shown in Table 11, have some catching-up to do.

Table 11

Sources: Town Websites, viewed March 2024

New York State has clearly established that citizens in a democratic form of government must have access to the information and to the decision-making process in order to hold their elected servants accountable.  Why then do so many elected town officials fail to do so?

Willful ignorance?  Laziness?  Contempt for citizen oversight?  Or, a desire to avoid being held accountable to the people—a form of authoritarian behavior?

Findings

The four towns studied here—the Towns of Colden, Holland, Sardinia and Wales—fail the separation-of-powers test and the meaningful elections test.  Instead of adopting a democratic form of government featuring a separate executive branch to implement town laws and provide a “check” on the legislative branch, the law making and executive (law administering) powers are concentrated in one body, the five elected members of the town boards.

And, instead of democratic-style elections, where voters have a meaningful choice between candidates from competing political parties, “make-believe” elections in these towns create and maintain a single-party rule—the Republican Party.

The results of the rule-of-law test—a measure of how well towns keep citizens informed prior to, and during, town board meetings—vary among the towns.  In only one town, the Town of Sardinia, do citizens enjoy open town board meetings.

The findings of this study can be summarized as follows: Many small, rural New York towns simply lack he organizational structure, ballot-box competition and open government practices needed for democratic governance.  The local governments in these four towns are more accurately classified as an authocracy.

Even as studies have documented the amateurish quality of public administration in small towns, state lawmakers in Albany continue to pass timid legislative fixes, absent mandatory and enforcement provisions. Apparently officials in Albany believe in a myth—that local, small town officials, with little public administration expertise and experience, will magically improve their administrative competence by imposing on themselves principles of democratic governance.

In 1976 towns were granted authority to create an executive branch separate from the town’s legislative branch.  Few towns have done so.

Almost 50 years after the Open Meetings Law was enacted, a large number of towns still prefer to keep their citizens at bay and ignorant of the goings-on in town hall.

As for the demographically-based, one-party, Republican Party, rule in small New York towns, little can be done in Albany.  And, with Donald Trump’s having reshaped the Republican Party to embrace an authoritarian form of government, the Republican Party’s current grip on rural, small towns will only tighten.

It is, of course, risky to assume the practices found in these four towns will be found to other small, rural towns of similar size in New York State.  But, I would be surprised if the authoritarian practices found in southern Erie County are not a fairly accurate description of government in many small New York towns.

It is time to stop pretending small towns are capable, ipso facto, of performing the administrative duties traditionally a part of democratic governance in America.  In small New York towns, part-time, amateur administrators may not even be aware of the full scope of the duties required by democratic governance, let alone how to deliver them.

Let’s end with a final observation from Professor Martin.

“Rural government is almost wholly amateur.  It is amateur in two senses.  First, there are few of the tools of professional management now widely in use among the larger units…Little government is amateur in the further sense that it is personal, not professional.”

“Grass-roots politics frequently involves little public policy; on the contrary, it may be largely of a personal character; and it may indeed be cast in terms of personal loyalty rather than in those terms usually held appropriate to the public arena.”

The End

Reader comments are invited and may be sent to the author at fraserr@erols.com

How to Stop Dollar General

Small, rural towns—and there are plenty of them—are prime locations for the next Dollar General outlet.

Many small towns welcome Dollar General stores.

But, when a New York developer proposed to build a Dollar General smack in the middle of three peaceful, residential, small town neighborhoods, citizens in all three towns set-off a Stop-Dollar General uproar.

Here, blow by blow, is how citizens and town officials in two towns teamed-up to successfully save their cherished residential neighborhoods…and…

How citizens in the third town protested in vain as town officials rolled-out a Dollar General welcome-mat.

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One Store Too Far: Saving Residential Neighborhoods

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