Outside Limits: OB Board Meetings to be Held Off-Island

By Shoshanna McCollumOcean Beach village board meetings will be held on greater Long Island until further notice, starting with the one scheduled for next Saturday, November 14. The announcement is James Mallott’s mayoral report came as a surprise to many of the attendees at the last board meeting on October 17, stating that there were no alternative winterized locations of sufficient size available on Fire Island.The designated meeting location is Islip Fire Department, at 208 Monell Avenue in Islip Hamlet, south of Main Street between Church and Union Avenues. For those traveling from New York City via LIRR, Islip Fire Department is 2.4 miles from the Bay Shore station, but only 0.8 miles from the Islip station on Moffitt Blvd.“While not a resident of Ocean Beach, being a Summer Club board member I like to keep informed. Thinking selfishly it was easy for me to attend, but I will have to make more of an investment on my part,” said FI Summer Club year-round resident Chris Dunworth. “I was surprised when they announced the school would not let them hold the meetings there anymore, perhaps its financial. There has to be a good reason.”Becoming a year-round resident only two years ago, Dunworth is still on the FINS driving permit waiting list and hopes he will be able to get a ride to the meetings with a friend.Where to Meet? Ocean Beach public meetings took on a nomadic nature after Hurricane Sandy. All village office operations were held on greater Long Island in the immediate aftermath. Upon returning to Fire Island former go-to alternatives were no longer available. The ferry terminal building was razed in January 2013, and Benevolent Association Fire Hall underwent extensive rehabilitation. The gymnasium of Fire Island School settled into being the off-season location of choice. With the third anniversary of Sandy now passed the emergency is over but a crisis still exists. Rehabilitation village facilities like the ferry terminal and Windswept remain out of reach. However the renovated OBFD Fire Hall was completed last June.“I think it is unfair to us who come all the way from the city to Islip only to wait on a sparse ferry schedule if we want to spend time at our Fire Island home – it’s kind of a wasted day,” said David Lipsky who would be traveling from Manhattan.Lipsky was vocal at the last meeting when the change of venue was announced.“I asked couldn’t they look further? The firehouse building is village owned, or maybe we could use a restaurant. They said the school and the fire hall would not allow them to have the meetings there. The mayor did not give a reason why it was turned down. Perhaps it had to do with insurance.”Inconvenient Truths: Beyond saying that the Ocean Beach Fire Hall is privately owned by the Benevolent Association, the officer interviewed would not comment on record on why village requests to use their facility was refused. However Fire Island School District was more forthcoming.“I can confidently say that refusing their request is untrue,” said District Superintendent Loretta Ferrero.A use of facilities application obtained via Freedom of Information Act with emailed correspondence between FIUFSD District Clerk Donna Clock and OB Deputy Clerk Susan Cafuoco between the dates of September 1 and November 2 reflect not only willingness by Fire Island School to host the meetings, but a concerted effort to locate a qualified and available building monitor for the desired dates. However the correspondence also states that the school initially had difficulty in locating the building monitor that their insurance requires. Ferrero confirms that FIUFSD has always absorbed all expenses related to it, so the issue of cost is moot.Law of the Land: While there have always been those willing to make the journey, attending an Ocean Beach board meeting in the dead of winter has always been a trek for its seasonal residents. For those who live on greater Long Island, the Islip meeting location will not only be more accessible, but less costly.“It certainly would be easier for me to attend,” said Barbara Brunner, a former village trustee and seasonal resident who would also be traveling from Manhattan. I guess all the year-rounders have 4-wheel drive vehicles and could make the trip if they wished. Is reconstruction of the ferry terminal one of the factors in this decision?”Holding public meetings outside the municipal boundary is legal largely due to court precedent set by Village of Saltaire. In 2009 the New York Supreme Court granted a permanent injunction against the western Fire Island municipality for holding winter meetings in New York City, but the decision was overturned on appeal the following year.“…there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that specifies precisely where meetings must be held,” says an advisory opinion letter on Saltaire’s situation written by New York State Committee of Open Government. “There is likely no perfect time or place for holding meetings that would accommodate the needs of all of those interested in attending… What may be fair to some may be unfair to others.”Years later Noel Feustel, the defeated plaintiff in the Saltaire lawsuit, is still bitter about that ruling. However he agrees that Ocean Beach’s situation is different. Ocean Beach is still holding their public meetings within the same township where the municipality is situated, while Saltaire holds it two counties away.Over time Saltaire’s meeting process actually evolved into the most sophisticated among the Fire Island communities with streaming Internet access to all board meetings regardless of their location – something Ocean Beach has yet to achieve in spite of many promises.“If Ocean Beach does not provide some level of remote access to its local residents they may not be in compliance with the Open Meetings Law,” says Robert Freeman, Executive Director of NYS Committee on Open Government.Freeman was further troubled that the village minutes indicate this decision to take the meetings off-island was announced in a mayor’s report, not published in the meeting’s agenda and ratified by its board.“The Mayor does not have unilateral control,” added Freeman. “These decisions must be voted by the total board membership. I don’t know what a court would say about this.”View of Islip Fire Department building and the corresponding street map produced by Google Inc.map of Islip FH