Judge to decide whether CUNY trustees violated New York sunshine law

Friday, July 24, 1998

A judge will decide whether City University of New York trustees violated the state's open meetings law during a contentious hearing in which they voted to ban remedial education courses from the school's four-year colleges.

Remedial education advocates argue that eliminating the classes would prevent many poor and immigrant students from enrolling at CUNY.

At an evidentiary hearing this week, critics of the vote testified that CUNY officials held the May 26 hearing in rooms which were too small to accommodate the expected crowds, limited public seating by reserving seats for administrative staff members and unfairly removed the entire audience when only a few people were unruly. They have requested a preliminary injunction, which would nullify the vote.

The hearing on that motion is expected to end Tuesday.

The motion is a supplement to a lawsuit filed in June 1995 by City College Professor William Crain and David Sucker, a graduate student in the City College School of Education. In Crain and Sucker v. CUNY, the plaintiffs claim that CUNY trustees violated the open meetings law at two meetings and a public hearing in 1995.

Crain said that this week's hearing was “very much factual, and on the basis of the facts we should win. If [we're] successful, they will have to conduct the vote again under conditions more favorable to democracy … reasonable public access to the deliberations of public officials, access to meetings and an opportunity to observe the decision making of the officials.”

On the other hand, if Justice Elliott Wilk decides CUNY did not violate the open meetings law in May, “I'm hoping there will be a large public outcry against the decision itself,” Crain said.

New York's Open Meetings Law states that the public has the right to observe the deliberations of public officials. The state was the last to adopt a sunshine law.

“It's infuriating that a large institution would break an open meetings law by excluding people when there is a law that says they should be let in,” Crain said. CUNY is the largest urban public university in the nation with 200,000 students.

CUNY spokeswoman Rita Roden said that no one from the university is allowed to comment on pending litigation. Ray Moskowitz, the school's general counsel, has not returned phone calls.

Crain's lawyer, Ronald C. Minkoff, presented 12 witnesses at this week's hearing including a 70-year-old nun who was arrested at the May 26 hearing because she did not leave fast enough; the chief security guard who testified that there has been a long-standing policy of admitting CUNY staff members to the meetings before members of the public who were already in line, and that this preferential policy created a crowd-control problem; an ex-officio faculty representative board member who testified that she had repeatedly asked board members to move the hearing to larger room; and one of CUNY's vice chancellors who said that she reserves seats for seven members of her staff to attend every board meeting.

During this week's hearings, CUNY attorneys said that a disturbance in the room during the May 26 hearing justified throwing everyone out and not just the people who were disruptive. They also argued that because 57 members of the public were admitted, this could not be considered a closed meeting. Minkoff reported that only two members of the public actually secured seats while the other 55 were forced to stand.

Minkoff said CUNY trustees' actions during the May 26 hearing “undermine public participation in democracy. CUNY officials try to go as close to the edge as they can get without violating the law. There are too many cracks in the wall, and [if not challenged] the wall will fall down.”