September 12, 2006
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your correspondence in which you indicated that are a newly elected member of the LaFayette Central School District Board of Education and raised a series of questions. As you may be aware, the advisory jurisdiction of the Committee on Open Government relates to matters involving access to and the disclosure of government information. Insofar as your questions pertain to those matters, I offer the following remarks.
In your initial communication you referred to a "scheduled executive work session, part of a scheduled district retreat." The terms "work session" and "retreat" are not found in any aspect of the Open Meetings Law or any other statute of which I am aware, and the issue, in short, is whether the gathering in question constituted a "meeting" that fell within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law.
By way of background, the Open Meetings Law applies to meetings of public bodies, and a board of education clearly constitutes a public body required to comply with that statute. Section 102(1) defines the term "meeting" to mean "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business". It is emphasized that the definition of "meeting" has been broadly interpreted by the courts. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the Court of Appeals found that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a "meeting" that must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take action and regardless of the manner in which a gathering may be characterized [see Orange County Publications v. Council of the City of Newburgh, 60 AD 2d 409, aff'd 45 NY 2d 947 (1978)].
Inherent in the definition and its judicial interpretation is the notion of intent. If there is an intent that a majority of a public body, such as a board of education, will convene for the purpose of conducting public business, such a gathering would, in my opinion, constitute a meeting subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law.
I point out that the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals was precipitated by contentions made by public bodies that so-called "work sessions" and similar gatherings held for the purpose of discussion, but without an intent to take action, fell outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. In discussing the issue, the Appellate Division, whose determination was unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals, stated that:
"We believe that the Legislature intended to include more than the mere formal act of voting or the formal execution of an official document. Every step of the decision-making process, including the decision itself, is a necessary preliminary to formal action. Formal acts have always been matters of public record and the public has always been made aware of how its officials have voted on an issue. There would be no need for this law if this was all the Legislature intended. Obviously, every thought, as well as every affirmative act of a public official as it relates to and is within the scope of one's official duties is a matter of public concern. It is the entire decision-making process that the Legislature intended to affect by the enactment of this statute" (60 AD 2d 409, 415).
The court also dealt with the characterization of meetings as "informal," stating that:
"The word 'formal' is defined merely as 'following or according with established form, custom, or rule' (Webster's Third New Int. Dictionary). We believe that it was inserted to safeguard the rights of members of a public body to engage in ordinary social transactions, but not to permit the use of this safeguard as a vehicle by which it precludes the application of the law to gatherings which have as their true purpose the discussion of the business of a public body" (id.).
Based upon the direction given by the courts, when a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, in their capacities as members of the body, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
It appears that the gathering to which you referred constituted a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. If that is so, it should have been preceded by notice given to the news media and posted in accordance with §104 of the Open Meetings Law and conducted open to the public, except to the extent that an executive session might properly have been held.
You asked whether the president of a board of education may "force executive session at the mere mention of an employee’s name, claiming it would violate contractual matters." In my opinion, the answer must clearly be in the negative. The Open Meetings Law, not the terms of a contract, provide the grounds for conducting an executive session. Stated differently, if there is no basis for entry into executive session that is authorized by the Open Meetings Law, a contractual provision cannot authorize a board of education to eliminate the public’s right to attend a meeting. Section 110 deals with the relationship between the Open Meetings Law and other provisions and states in subdivision (1) that:
"Any provision of a charter, administrative code, local law, ordinance, or rule or regulation affecting a public body which is more restrictive with respect to public access than this article shall be deemed superseded hereby to the extent that such provision is more restrictive than this article."
Moreover, although it is used frequently, it is emphasized that a careful reading of the Open Meetings Law indicates that the word "personnel" appears nowhere in that statute. To be sure, there are some issues that relate to "personnel" that may properly be considered during executive sessions. Nevertheless, there are many others that do not fall within any of the grounds for entry into executive session. Moreover, there is simply nothing in the Open Meetings Law that specifies that personnel-related issues are confidential.
The language of the so-called "personnel" exception, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law, is limited and precise. In terms of legislative history, as originally enacted, the provision in question permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."
Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.
Further, in instances in which §105(1)(f) may be validly asserted, it has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or "specific personnel matters" is inadequate, and that the motion should be based upon the specific language of §105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
It is noted that the Appellate Division has confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving the establishment and functions of a position, the Court stated that:
"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 ), and it is apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).
"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue', does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]). Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 620 NY 2d 573, 575; 209 AD 2d 55, 58 (1994)].
In short, the characterization of an issue as a "personnel matter" is inadequate, for it fails to enable the public or even members of the Board to know whether subject at hand may properly be considered during an executive session. Similarly, even though an employee’s names is mentioned, unless the subject matter falls within the language of §105(1)(f) or a different basis for entry into executive session, the discussion must occur in public.
Even when there is a basis for entry into executive session, there is no obligation to convene in private. Section 105(1) prescribes a procedure that must be accomplished in public before an executive session may be held. That provision states that:
" Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only, provided, however, that no action by formal vote shall be taken to appropriate public moneys..."
If no motion is made to enter into executive session, or if a motion to conduct an executive session is not approved, a public body is generally free to discuss issues in public.
The only instances, in my view, in which members of a public body are prohibited from disclosing information would involve matters that are indeed confidential. W hen a public body has the discretionary authority to discuss a matter in public or in private, I do not believe that the matter can properly be characterized as "confidential."
Many judicial decisions have focused on access to and the ability to disclose records, and this office has considered the New York Freedom of Information Law, the federal Freedom of Information Act, and the Open Meetings Law in its analyses of what may be "confidential." To be confidential under the Freedom of Information Law, I believe that records must be "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute" in accordance with §87(2)(a). Similarly, §108(3) of the Open Meetings Law refers to matters made confidential by state or federal law as "exempt" from the provisions of that statute.
Both the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, and federal courts in construing access statutes have determined that the characterization of records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure by statute" must be based on statutory language that specifically confers or requires confidentiality. As stated by the Court of Appeals:
"Although we have never held that a State statute must expressly state it is intended to establish a FOIL exemption, we have required a showing of clear legislative intent to establish and preserve that confidentiality which one resisting disclosure claims as protection" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 567 (1986)].
In like manner, in construing the equivalent exception to rights of access in the federal Act, it has been found that:
"Exemption 3 excludes from its coverage only matters that are:
specifically exempted from disclosure by statute (other than section 552b of this title), provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.
"5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3) (1982) (emphasis added). Records sought to be withheld under authority of another statute thus escape the release requirements of FOIA if – and only if – that statute meets the requirements of Exemption 3, including the threshold requirement that it specifically exempt matters from disclosure. The Supreme Court has equated ‘specifically’ with ‘explicitly.’ Baldridge v. Shapiro, 455 U.S. 345, 355, 102 S. Ct. 1103, 1109, 71 L.Ed.2d 199 (1982). ‘[O]nly explicitly non-disclosure statutes that evidence a congressional determination that certain materials ought to be kept in confidence will be sufficient to qualify under the exemption.’ Irons & Sears v. Dann, 606 F.2d 1215, 1220 (D.C.Cir.1979) (emphasis added). In other words, a statute that is claimed to qualify as an Exemption 3 withholding statute must, on its face, exempt matters from disclosure"[Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press v. U.S. Department of Justice, 816 F.2d 730, 735 (1987); modified on other grounds,831 F.2d 1184 (1987); reversed on other grounds, 489 U.S. 789 (1989); see also British Airports Authority v. C.A.B., D.C.D.C.1982, 531 F.Supp. 408; Inglesias v. Central Intelligence Agency, D.C.D.C.1981, 525 F.Supp, 547; Hunt v. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, D.C.D.C.1979, 484 F.Supp. 47; Florida Medical Ass’n, Inc. v. Department of Health, Ed. & Welfare, D.C.Fla.1979, 479 F.Supp. 1291].
In short, to be "exempted from disclosure by statute", both state and federal courts have determined that a statute must leave no discretion to an agency: it must withhold such records.
In contrast, when records are not exempted from disclosure by a separate statute, both the Freedom of Information Law and its federal counterpart are permissive. Although an agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the Court of Appeals held that the agency is not obliged to do so and may choose to disclose, stating that:
"...while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling within the statutory exemptions, the language of the exemption provision contains permissible rather than mandatory language, and it is within the agency’s discretion to disclose such records...if it so chooses" (Capital Newspapers, supra, 567).
The only situations in which an agency cannot disclose would involve those instances in which a statute other than the Freedom of Information Law prohibits disclosure. The same is so under the federal Act. While a federal agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has discretionary authority to disclose. Stated differently, there is nothing inherently confidential about records that an agency may choose to withhold or disclose; only when an agency has no discretion and must deny access would records be confidential or "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute" in accordance with §87(2)(a).
The same analysis is applicable in the context of the Open Meetings Law. While that statute authorizes public bodies to conduct executive sessions in circumstances described in paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1), again, there is no requirement that an executive session be held even though a public body has the right to do so. The introductory language of §105(1), which prescribes a procedure that must be accomplished before an executive session may be held, clearly indicates that a public body "may" conduct an executive session only after having completed that procedure. If, for example, a motion is made to conduct an executive session for a valid reason, and the motion is not carried, the public body could either discuss the issue in public or table the matter for discussion in the future.
Since a public body may choose to conduct an executive session or discuss an issue in public, information expressed during an executive session is not "confidential." To be confidential, again, a statute must prohibit disclosure and leave no discretion to an agency or official regarding the ability to disclose.
By means of example, if a discussion by a board of education concerns a record pertaining to a particular student (i.e., in the case of consideration of disciplinary action, an educational program, an award, etc.), the discussion would have to occur in private and the record would have to be withheld insofar as public discussion or disclosure would identify the student. As you know, FERPA generally prohibits an educational agency from disclosing education records or information derived from those records that are identifiable to a student, unless the parents of the student consent to disclosure. In the context of the Open Meetings Law, a discussion concerning a student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law and would be exempted from the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §108(3)]. In the context of the Freedom of Information Law, an education record would be specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in accordance with §87(2)(a). In both contexts, I believe that a board of education, its members and school district employees would be prohibited from disclosing, because a statute requires confidentiality.
In a case in which the issue was whether discussions occurring during an executive session held by a school board could be considered "privileged", it was held that "there is no statutory provision that describes the matter dealt with at such a session as confidential or which in any way restricts the participants from disclosing what took place" (Runyon v. Board of Education, West Hempstead Union Free School District No. 27, Supreme Court, Nassau County, January 29, 1987). In the context of most of the duties of most municipal boards, councils or similar bodies, there is no statute that forbids disclosure or requires confidentiality. Again, the Freedom of Information Law states that an agency may withhold records in certain circumstances; it has discretion to grant or deny access. The only instances in which records may be characterized as "confidential" would, based on judicial interpretations, involve those situations in which a statute prohibits disclosure and leaves no discretion to a person or body.
Finally with respect to the Open Meetings Law, you questioned whether the president of a board of education may "send letters out representing the other members without their signatures or even participation." It is my understanding that many activities of a president of a board of education are ministerial in nature or are carried out through a delegation of authority by a board. However, I do not believe that a president of a board alone or fewer than a majority of its members may take action on behalf of the board when only the board has the authority to do so. Further, from my perspective, voting or action by a board may be carried out only at a meeting during which a quorum has physically convened, or during a meeting held by videoconference.
Section 102(1) of the Open Meetings Law defines the term "meeting" in its entirety to mean "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business, including the use of videoconferencing for attendance and participation by the members of the public body." Based upon an ordinary dictionary definition of "convene", that term means:
"1. to summon before a tribunal;
2. to cause to assemble syn see 'SUMMON'" (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Copyright 1965).
In view of that definition and others, I believe that a meeting, i.e., the "convening" of a public body, involves the physical coming together of at least a majority of the total membership of such a body, or a convening that occurs through videoconferencing.
The provisions in the Open Meetings Law concerning videoconferencing are newly enacted (Chapter 289 of the Laws of 2000), and in my view, those amendments clearly indicate that there are only two ways in which a public body may validly conduct a meeting. Any other means of conducting a meeting, i.e., by telephone conference, by mail, by e-mail, or perhaps by signing a letter in serial fashion at different times, would be inconsistent with law.
I point out that the definition of the phrase "public body" in §102(2) refers to entities that are required to conduct public business by means of a quorum. The term "quorum" is defined in §41 of the General Construction Law, which has been in effect since 1909. The cited provision, which was also amended to include language concerning videoconferencing, states that:
"Whenever three of more public officers are given any power or authority, or three or more persons are charged with any public duty to be performed or exercised by them jointly or as a board or similar body, a majority of the whole number of such persons or officers, gathered together in the presence of each other or through the use of videoconferencing, at a meeting duly held at a time fixed by law, or by any by-law duly adopted by such board of body, or at any duly adjourned meeting of such meeting, or at any meeting duly held upon reasonable notice to all of them, shall constitute a quorum and not less than a majority of the whole number may perform and exercise such power, authority or duty. For the purpose of this provision the words 'whole number' shall be construed to mean the total number which the board, commission, body or other group of persons or officers would have were there no vacancies and were none of the persons or officers disqualified from acting."
Based on the foregoing, again, a valid meeting may occur only when a majority of the total membership of a public body, a quorum, has "gathered together in the presence of each other or through the use of videoconferencing." Moreover, only when a quorum has convened in the manner described in §41 of the General Construction Law would a public body have the authority to carry out its powers and duties.
Moving to issues involving records, you referred to "challenging student discipline records" and expressed the belief that "FERPA regulations would allow a parent/guardian the opportunity to contest and correct records". You asked how a parent enforces those regulations when a school district official denies a parent the ability to do so. The regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education pursuant to FERPA (34 CFR Part 99), as you suggest, include provisions concerning the ability of a parent of a student or an "eligible student", a student 18 years of age or who is attending an institution of postsecondary education to seek to amend records. Specifically, §99.20 states that:
"(a) If a parent or eligible student believes the education records relating to the student contain information that is inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of the student’s rights of privacy, he or she may ask the educational agency or institution to amend the record.
(b) The educational agency or institution shall decide whether to amend the record as requested within a reasonable time after the agency or institution receives the request.
(c) If the educational agency or institution decides not to amend the record as requested, it shall inform the parent or eligible student of its decision and of his or her right to a hearing under §99.21."
Section 99.21 states in relevant part that:
"(b)(1) If, as a result of the hearing, the educational agency or institution decides that the information is inaccurate, misleading or otherwise in violation of the privacy rights of the student, it shall:
(i) Amend the record accordingly; and
(ii) Inform the parent or eligible student of the amendment in writing."
Section 99.22 requires that a hearing be held "within a reasonable time" after it has been requested, that a decision must be rendered within a reasonable time, and that the decision "must be based solely on the evidence presented at the hearing, and must include a summary of the evidence and the reasons for the decision."
When an educational agency fails to comply with FERPA, it has been suggested that the unit of the U.S. Department of Education that oversees FERPA, the Family Policy Compliance Office, be contacted at (202)260-3887.
You also asked whether an individual member of a board of education my gain access to records relating to a determination in a disciplinary hearing "without consensus by the Board."
In my opinion, the only method of so doing would involve obtaining an authorization from a parent of the student who is the subject of the determination. In essence, the parent in that situation would transfer rights accorded to him/her by FERPA to a third party, such as a board member.
In a somewhat related vein, you asked how parents can request copies of police reports involving a school and their children. When such records are maintained by a school district, either the Freedom of Information Law or FERPA would govern rights of access. FERPA pertains to education records identifiable to students, and the phrase "education record" is defined in federal regulations to mean records relating to a student that are maintained by an educational agency or institution (34 CFR §99.3). However, the definition specifically excludes:
"Records of a law enforcement unit of an educational agency or institution, but only if education records maintained by the agency or institution are not disclosed to the unit, and the law enforcement records are -
(i) Maintained separately from education records;
(ii) Maintained solely for law enforcement purposes; and
(iii) Disclosed only to law enforcement officials of the same jurisdiction..."
In addition, §99.8(b)(1) states that:
"Records of a law enforcement unit means those records, files, documents, and other materials that are -
(i) Created by a law enforcement unit;
(ii) Created for a law enforcement purpose; and
(iii) Maintained by the law enforcement unit."
Based on the foregoing, if a report can be characterized as a record of a law enforcement unit, FERPA would not apply. In that case, the record would be subject to whatever rights exist under the Freedom of Information Law.
If no law enforcement unit has been developed and FERPA applies, I believe that a police report or other document pertaining to a student is in possession of school district would be accessible to a parent of the student. I note, however, that those portions of those records that include personally identifiable information pertaining to other students must be deleted to protect the privacy of those students, unless consent to disclose is given by parents of those students.
If FERPA does not apply because the record is maintained by a law enforcement unit, or if the record is not maintained by a school district but rather by a police department, a request should be made by a parent to the department pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, that statute is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (j) of the Law.
Several grounds for denial of access might be relevant in considering rights of access or the ability of a police department to deny access. For instance, if a police report identifies students other than the child of a parent seeking access, identifying details might properly be deleted on the ground that disclosure would result "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [§87(2)(b)]. Insofar as disclosure would interfere with a law enforcement investigation, records may be withheld [§87(2)(e)(i)]. Other exceptions might also be pertinent, depending on the contents of the record, the nature of an event and the effects of disclosure.
You asked whether the public has "a right to know of major incidences occuring on school property, for example: lockdowns, incidents of violence, drugs or alcohol charges, vandalism." Some of the events to which you referred, such as lockdowns or vandalism, are clearly not secret; students and others are aware of those events. That being so, records that relate to those events are subject to rights of access conferred by the Freedom of Information Law. Again, the content of the records serves as the primary factor in determining the extent to which they must be disclosed or, contrarily, to which they may be withheld in accordance with the exceptions to rights of access appearing in §87(2) of the Freedom of Information Law.
Also relevant may be §2802 of the Education Law, which pertains to the "Uniform violent incident reporting system." Under that section, school districts are required to prepare reports regarding violent or disruptive incidents. As in the case of FERPA, §2802 of the Education Law specifies that portions of those reports identifiable to students must be kept confidential. That provision refers to the obligation of the Commissioner of Education to promulgate regulations that require "the confidentiality of all personally identifiable information"[see §2802(6)], and the regulations in §100.2(gg)(6) states that "all personally identifiable information included in a violent or disruptive incident report shall be confidential."
Lastly, following the deletion of personally identifiable information, I believe that the reports, irrespective of whether they have been communicated to the State Education Department, are accessible to the public. In short, following those deletions, the remainder of the reports would consist of factual information available under subparagraph (iii) of §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states that statistical or factual information contained within internal governmental communications are accessible.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education