It is unusual for the Press-Republican to devote an editorial to the achievements of a recently deceased North County citizen, for fear of giving too much weight to the contributions of one individual and none to others who are equally deserving.
We’re departing from that practice in the case of George H. Poitras, however, because we think it’s important that readers recognize at least one legacy he leaves behind: open government.
Poitras was a member of the Plattsburgh Common Council for 16 years, from 1974 through ‘89. Coincidentally, in 1974, the New York State Legislature passed and the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Subsequently, it passed a more refined version, and in 1976 approved another law specifying which meetings must be open to the public.
The state was taking action to make government more accessible to the public.
But Plattsburgh actually needed no such laws, thanks to George Poitras. He was known in that era as the reporter’s best friend, because, even though open government was a new concept and not one embraced by all members of public bodies, Poitras would have nothing of the secrecy that until then had shrouded much of what went on in city halls and other local governments.
He always conducted himself in a casual, unflappable manner, and he was never cowed by either the import of the business at hand or by what he regarded as unproductive secrecy by his colleagues or by the mayor.
Plattsburgh’s mayor in those days was the Rev. Roland St. Pierre, a Roman Catholic priest who sometimes governed as if presiding over his flock. He would often tell a reporter he didn’t want something in the paper, only to see it the next day because the reporter and Poitras had talked it over and torn open the shroud.
Poitras was the ultimate in pragmatic politics. He believed he, his colleagues, the mayor and the City Hall staff were employed to advance the citizens’ cause in all things and nothing any of them did should be done without the public’s full knowledge.
A Ward 3 alderman — there were two representatives from each of the three wards then, and no “alderwomen” — he and his friend, fellow Republican and county Legislator Don Garrant were the first to conduct regular, publicized ward forums to answer questions and solicit suggestions from the constituents. The forums likely were Garrant’s inspiration, but they were certainly in line with Poitras’s views on public accountability.
Poitras died May 20 at age 85. His wife, Betty, survives —she was a longtime member of the Plattsburgh City School Board, making public service a family tradition.
Open government is not only a law now, it is very much taken for granted in most circles.
George Poitras was an early architect of that trend.
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