Meetings planned in Schenectady criticized as having "air of secrecy"

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Saturday, December 17, 2011

SCHENECTADY -- The City Council plans to interview candidates to replace Gary McCarthy, who will step down as the council's president to become mayor next month, several council members said Friday.

One of the people in contention, Democrat John Mootooveren, narrowly lost his bid for one of the four seats on the seven-member council that were up for election this year, while another Democrat, Marion Porterfield, had been promised the post by party leaders, according to council member Barbara Blanchard. She said that the party expected Mootooveren to win his race on Election Day and that Porterfield had earlier agreed not run in a primary in exchange for being picked to take McCarthy's seat if he went on to win the mayoral election.

He did, but by a narrow margin. After leading Alliance Party founder Roger Hull by just 77 votes on Election Night, McCarthy was not declared the winner until Dec. 1 after an unsuccessful challenge over absentee and paper ballots from Alliance Party founder Roger Hull. In his role as council president, McCarthy became acting mayor when Brian Stratton resigned to become head of the state Canal Corporation. Next month, the council will elect one of its members to be the new president.

For now, all of the members of the council are Democrats, but that will soon change. Last month, Alliance Party member Vince Riggi was elected with the backing of the Republican Party.

On Friday, Blanchard said the council is scheduling groups of three of its members to meet "in executive session" to interview Mootooveren this weekend and Porterfield on Tuesday. However, other council members said details of the interviews have not been finalized.

State law requires that meetings of public bodies be open to the public. Council member Denise Brucker said the interviews do not have to be public because a quorum-- in this case a majority of the council membership -- will not be present.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said the Open Meetings Law does not apply if there is no quorum.

If there was a quorum, he said, discussion behind closed doors of matters leading to the appointment to fill a vacancy in an elective office could be invalid under a court ruling on the matter, Freeman said.

Also, three members of a 7-member council can be considered a quorum, if those members belong to a committee, which in itself constitutes a public body, Freeman said. But Blanchard said members conducting the interviews in this case do not belong to a committee.

The ultimate decision will be made by the council after the newly elected members are sworn in, not by the lame-duck legislature. One of the newcomers is already setting himself apart from the pack on the selection process.

"I don't think it's the correct thing to do," Riggi said. "I think it should be open to the public, at city hall. I won't be attending any private meetings at anyone's house. It certainly has an air of secrecy. I just don't feel it's proper."

None of the newly elected council members or incumbents staying in office are members of a minority group. Joe Allen, the current council's sole African-American member, did not run for another term.

The appointment of either Mootooveren, who is a Guyanese immigrant, or Porterfield, an African-American, would restore diversity to the local legislature.

Should Mootooveren be appointed, it would not be the first time an unsuccessful candidate filled an elective office in Schenectady. In 2009, the city school board appointed Linda Bellick to fill a seat after she lost her race for re-election.

Reach Yi-Ke Peng at 454-5008 or