Fire Island Meetings Online: One Reporter’s Experience

By Emma BoskovskiIn this article, I write to reflect upon my experience covering the Village of Ocean Beach Board of Trustee monthly meetings that take place at the Ferry Terminal Boat House, typically on Saturday’s, at 11:15 a.m.Last summer, I had utilized the software known as GoToMeeting to stream the Village of Saltaire Board of Trustee meetings when unable to attend in person. This summer, I was assigned to cover the Village of Ocean Beach Board of Trustee meetings, who claim to use the same technology, GoToMeeting.According to the services website, GoToMeeting is a “fast, easy, reliable” way to stream video meetings. Once downloaded and provided with an access link, citizens can tune into the meeting via laptop or cell phone. Speaking as somebody who has worked with the software, I can attest to the reliability of the service.The Village of Saltaire posts their tentative meeting agenda on the front page of their website, like Ocean Beach. However, Saltaire includes a link at the top of their agenda to tune into GoToMeeting. It also gives detailed instructions about how to call into the meeting using your cell phone with a provided number to dial and access code.When I was assigned to move eastbound down the island to cover Ocean Beach meetings, I assumed there would be the use of similar technology that I had encountered at Saltaire. This idea was reinforced for me when it was mentioned at the May 18, 2019 meeting.For the Village’s July meeting, I missed my 10:40 a.m. ferry to attend the 11:15 a.m. meeting after my epic marathon down Maple Avenue. I drove home and knew that I could stream the meeting online.Arriving home, with many aggressive clicks and clacks to my laptop keys, I could not find the link to stream the village meetings anywhere. I called the village office for aid and received no answer. With the wave of my white flag, I called my editor and admitted for the first time in my journalistic career that I wouldn’t be able to submit an assignment that I accepted. I was disappointed in myself, but was also incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t find the link anywhere online … was I missing something?Why did the Village of Saltaire, a private Fire Island community, make their link more transparent than the Village of Ocean Beach, one of the most populated incorporated villages on Fire Island? Speaking with my editor later that day, she informed me that she found the link to tune into GoToMeeting on a closed Facebook page she belongs to as an Ocean Beach resident (Ocean Beach Bulletin Board). This Facebook page received the link from a post by Trustee Dawn Hargraves.This raised even more questions for me: why would a village even offer online streaming if the link is not discoverable anywhere?When my editor and I had found it, we decided that I would cover the Village’s next meeting in August remotely since I would be unavailable to attend, placing her on standby in case ofany issues.Until then, I filed a freedom of information request with the Village for the July meeting minutes so that I could still manage to report upon the meeting. I explained in my request that I work with The Fire Island News and what I intended to do with the minutes. However, a week later, I received an email from Ocean Beach that my request was denied. In the denial, received from the Village on July 22, it read “no such documents are responsive to your request at this time. At the next Board of Trustees meeting, Aug. 17, the Meeting Minutes will be approved. They are not available for release until that time.”According to section 206 of New York State Open Meeting Law, “minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meeting.”However, the July meeting took place on July 13, and the August meeting on Aug. 17. This is obviously more than two weeks.The morning of their meeting, Aug. 17, at 11:15 a.m., I tuned into GoToMeeting using the link posted on that private Facebook page. A screen appeared that read “the meeting will begin when Dawn Hargraves VOB arrives.” This screen never disappeared.Despite multiple attempts to reach Trustee Dawn Hargraves for comment on this article, no response was ever received.An article written by Timothy Bolger published by the Fire Island News in 2017 that ran with the headline “Municipal Report Card: Fire Island governments get C+ for Transparency,” Saltaire received an A- and Ocean Beach a C-. The Long Island Open Records Report Card was curated by the Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).According to Bolger’s article, local governments were scored based off grading criteria created by Press Club of Long Island (PCLI) to inspect which local government entities properly aligned themselves with the New York State Freedom of Information Law.In the PCLI report, Ocean Beach lost points for repeated follow-ups required to obtain documents, charging for paper copies of board meeting agendas despite their policy against this, and not maintaining a subject matter listing. C- of course is not a failing grade – but it does suggest there is room for improvement.