December 6, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
We are in receipt of your request for an advisory opinion concerning application of the Open Meetings Law to various proceedings of the Town of Vienna, and the Freedom of Information Law to certain requests for records. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding. You raised a number of issues in your request, all of which we will attempt to address with the following comments.
First, while the Open Meetings Law clearly provides the public with the right "to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy" (see Open Meetings Law, §100), the Law is silent with respect to public participation. Consequently, by means of example, if a public body, such as the Town Board, does not want to answer questions or permit the public to speak or otherwise participate at its meetings, we do not believe that it would be obliged to do so. On the other hand, a public body may choose to answer questions and permit public participation, and many do so. When a public body does permit the public to speak, we believe that it should do so based upon reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.
Although public bodies have the right to adopt rules to govern their own proceedings (see e.g., Town Law, §63 and Education Law, §1709), the courts have found in a variety of contexts that such rules must be reasonable. For example, although a board of education may "adopt by laws and rules for its government and operations", in a case in which a board's rule prohibited the use of tape recorders at its meetings, the Appellate Division found that the rule was unreasonable, stating that the authority to adopt rules "is not unbridled" and that "unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned" [see Mitchell v. Garden City Union Free School District, 113 AD 2d 924, 925 (1985)]. Similarly, if by rule, a public body chose to permit certain citizens to address it for ten minutes while permitting others to address it for three, or not at all, such a rule, in our view, would be unreasonable.
There are federal court decisions indicating that if commentary is permitted within a certain subject area, negative commentary in the same area cannot be prohibited. It has been held by the United States Supreme Court that a school board meeting in which the public may speak is a “limited” public forum, and that limited public fora involve “public property which the State has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity” [Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators’ Association, 460 US 37, 103. S.Ct. 954 (1939); also see Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School District, 936 F. Supp. 719 (1996)]. In Baca, a federal court invalidated a bylaw that “allows expression of two points of view (laudatory and neutral) while prohibiting a different point of view (negatively critical) on a particular subject matter (District employees’ conduct or performance)” (id., 730). That prohibition “engenders discussion artificially geared toward praising (and maintaining) the status quo, thereby foreclosing meaningful public dialogue and ultimately, dynamic political change” [Leventhal v. Vista Unified School District, 973 F.Supp. 951, 960 (1997)]. In a decision rendered by the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York (1997 WL588876 E.D.N.Y.), Schuloff, v. Murphy, it was stated that:
“In a traditional public forum, like a street or park, the government may enforce a content-based exclusion only if it is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end. Perry Educ. Ass’n., 460 U.S. at 45. A designated or ‘limited’ public forum is public property ‘that the state has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity.’ Id. So long as the government retains the facility open for speech, it is bound by the same standards that apply to a traditional public forum. Thus, any content-based prohibition must be narrowly drawn to effectuate a compelling state interest. Id. at 46.”
In the context of the specific issues that you raised, we believe that a court would determine that the Town Board may limit the amount of time allotted to person who wishes to speak at a meeting, so long as the limitation is reasonable. Similarly, it is our view that the Town Board may limit comments to matters involving Town business or the operation of Town government and require a brief written summary of the subject intended to be discussed by a person wishing to address the Board. Requiring that a person anticipate and articulate all questions exactly, prior to the meeting, in our opinion seems excessive.
However, from our perspective, while the Supervisor presides over Town Board meetings, it is questionable whether he may validly determine unilaterally whether the subject matter of comment proposed by a person desiring to speak involves Town business. He is but one member of the Town Board and we believe that the Town Board, if necessary, should determine by means of a majority vote of its total members if there is a question or disagreement regarding whether a subject relates to Town business. We believe that the Town Board in that circumstance should determine whether the subject may be raised, rather than the Supervisor reaching a determination alone. It is also noted that §63 of the Town Law states in part that “Every act, motion or resolution shall require for its adoption the affirmative vote of all the members of the town board.”
Second, with respect to the issue of turning off the clerk’s tape recorder and directing the clerk to discontinue taking minutes while a majority of the Town Board remains gathered and continues to discuss public business, in our opinion such actions are contrary to several provisions of the Open Meetings Law.
By way of background, it is noted that the definition of "meeting" has been broadly interpreted by the courts. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, 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)].
We 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, or remains gathered to continue to discuss public business, any such gathering, in our opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. Since a gathering to discuss public business held by a majority of a public body is a “meeting”, regardless of whether it is characterized as “off the record”, it would have the same responsibilities in relation to notice and the taking of minutes as in the case of a formal meeting, as well as the same ability to enter into executive sessions.
With respect to preparation of meeting minutes, the Open Meetings Law contains what might be viewed as minimum requirements concerning the contents of minutes. Specifically, §106 of the Open Meetings Law states that:
"1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.
2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.
3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."
Based upon the foregoing, it is clear in our view that minutes need not consist of a verbatim account of what was said at a meeting; similarly, there is no requirement that minutes refer to every topic discussed or identify those who may have spoken. Although a public body may choose to prepare expansive minutes, at a minimum, minutes of open meetings must include reference to all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matters upon which votes are taken. If those kinds of actions, such as motions or votes, do not occur during workshops, technically we do not believe that minutes must be prepared.
With respect to the question of proper notice, several provisions of law may be pertinent to an analysis of the matter. As you may be aware, two statutes involve notice. Section 62 of the Town Law deals with notice of special meetings to members of a town board and states in relevant part that "The supervisor of any town may, and upon written request of two members of the board shall within ten days, call a special meeting of the town board by giving at least two days notice in writing to the members of the board of the time when and the place where the meeting is to be held."
The provision quoted above pertain to notice given to members of a town board, and the requirements imposed by §62 are separate from those contained in the Open Meetings Law.
Section 104 of the Open Meetings Law deals with notice of meetings that must be given to the news media and to the public by means of posting. Specifically, §104 of that statute provides that:
"1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before each meeting.
2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be given, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto.
3. The public notice provided for by this section shall not be construed to require publication as a legal notice."
Stated differently, if a meeting is scheduled at least a week in advance, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and to the public by means of posting in one or more designated public locations, not less than seventy-two hours prior to the meeting. If a meeting is scheduled less than a week an advance, again, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and posted in the same manner as described above, "to the extent practicable", at a reasonable time prior to the meeting. Although the Open Meetings Law does not make reference to "special" or "emergency" meetings, if, for example, there is a need to convene quickly, the notice requirements can generally be met by telephoning or faxing notice of the time and place of a meeting to the local news media and by posting notice in one or more designated locations.
The judicial interpretation of the Open Meetings Law indicates that the propriety of scheduling a meeting less than a week in advance is dependent upon the actual need to do so. As stated in Previdi v. Hirsch:
"Whether abbreviated notice is 'practicable' or 'reasonable' in a given case depends on the necessity for same. Here, respondents virtually concede a lack of urgency: They deny petitioner's characterization of the session as an 'emergency' and maintain nothing of substance was transacted at the meeting except to discuss the status of litigation and to authorize, pro forma, their insurance carrier's involvement in negotiations. It is manifest then that the executive session could easily have been scheduled for another date with only minimum delay. In that event respondents could even have provided the more extensive notice required by POL §104(1). Only respondent's choice in scheduling prevented this result.
"Moreover, given the short notice provided by respondents, it should have been apparent that the posting of a single notice in the School District offices would hardly serve to apprise the public that an executive session was being called...
"In White v. Battaglia, 79 A.D. 2d 880, 881, 434 N.Y.S.ed 637, lv. to app. den. 53 N.Y.2d 603, 439 N.Y.S.2d 1027, 421 N.E.2d 854, the Court condemned an almost identical method of notice as one at bar:
"Fay Powell, then president of the board, began contacting board members at 4:00 p.m. on June 27 to ask them to attend a meeting at 7:30 that evening at the central office, which was not the usual meeting date or place. The only notice given to the public was one typewritten announcement posted on the central office bulletin board...Special Term could find on this record that appellants violated the...Public Officers Law...in that notice was not given 'to the extent practicable, to the news media' nor was it 'conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations' at a reasonable time 'prior thereto' (emphasis added)" [524 NYS 2d 643, 645 (1988)].
Based upon the foregoing, absent an emergency or urgency, the Court in Previdi suggested that it would be unreasonable to conduct meetings on short notice, unless there is some clear necessity to do so. In our opinion, changing the start time of a meeting on the day of a meeting without the necessity to do so would be equally unreasonable.
With respect to your questions about executive sessions, as you may be aware, the Open Meetings Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an executive session. Section 105(1) states in relevant part 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..."
As such, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or subjects to be discussed, and the motion must be carried by majority vote of a public body's total membership before such a session may validly be held. The ensuing provisions of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may appropriately be considered during an executive session.
Although it is used frequently, the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. While one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters, from my perspective, the term is overused and is frequently cited in a manner that is misleading or causes unnecessary confusion. To be sure, some issues involving "personnel" may be properly considered in an executive session; others, in our view, cannot. Further, certain matters that have nothing to do with personnel may be discussed in private under the provision that is ordinarily cited to discuss personnel.
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.
To attempt to clarify the Law, the Committee recommended a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law, several of which became effective on October 1, 1979. The recommendation made by the Committee regarding §105(1)(f) was enacted and states that a public body may enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation..." (emphasis added).
Due to the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), I believe that a discussion of "personnel" may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when at least one of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) is considered. Matters of policy that affect personnel, consideration of the budget or the creation or elimination of positions, for example, typically cannot validly be considered in executive session.
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 our 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; 207AD 2d 55, 58 (1994)]
Now, with respect to the Freedom of Information Law, in your correspondence, you relayed a discussion about the availability of bank statements, and the role of the Town Clerk as records access officer with regard to providing access to records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law. In this regard, the functions of a “records access officer” is not generally a full-time position; that position is not a civil service title, and there is generally no restriction on who may carry out those functions.
By way of background, §89(1) of the Freedom of Information Law requires the Committee on Open Government to promulgate regulations concerning the procedural implementation of that statute (21 NYCRR Part 1401). In turn, §87(1) requires the governing body of a public corporation (i.e., a county, city, town, village, school district, etc.) to adopt rules and regulations consistent those promulgated by the Committee and with the Freedom of Information Law. Further, §1401.2 of the regulations provides in relevant part that:
“(a) The governing body of a public corporation and the head of an executive agency or governing body of other agencies shall be responsible for insuring compliance with the regulations herein, and shall designate one or more persons as records access officer by name or by specific job title and business address, who shall have the duty of coordinating agency response to public requests for access officers shall not be construed to prohibit officials who have in the past been authorized to make records or information available to the public form continuing from doing so.”
Section 1401.2 (b) of the regulations describes the duties of a records access officer and states in part that:
“The records access officer is responsible for assuring that agency personnel...
(3) upon locating the records, take one of the following actions:
(i) make records promptly available for inspection; or
(ii) deny access to the records in whole or in part and explain in writing the reasons therefor.
(4) Upon request for copies of records:
(i) make a copy available upon payment or offer to pay established
fees, if any; or
(ii) permit the requester to copy those records...”
In short, the records access officer must "coordinate" an agency's response to requests. Frequently the records access officer is an agency officer or employee who has familiarity with an agency’s records. For example, the town clerk is designated as records access in the great majority of towns, for he or she, is also the records management officer and the legal custodian of town records, pursuant to §30(1) of the Town Law.
When an agency denies access to records, the applicant has the right to appeal pursuant to §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states in relevant part that:
"any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive or governing body of the entity, or the person therefor designated by such head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
Further, the regulations promulgated by the Committee state that:
"(a) The governing body of a public corporation or the head, chief executive or governing body of other agencies shall hear appeals or shall designate a person or body to hear appeals regarding denial of access to records under the Freedom of Information Law.
(b) Denial of access shall be in writing stating the reason therefor and advising the person denied access of his or her right to appeal to the person or body established to hear appeals, and that person or body shall be identified by name, title, business address and business telephone number. The records access officer shall not be the appeals officer" (section 1401.7).
In consideration of the foregoing, it is clear that a town board, for example, is authorized to determine appeals, or that the head or governing body of an agency may designate a person or body to carry out that function.
Further, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law 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 (i) of the Law.
The pertinent exception with respect to bank account numbers indicated on bank statements in our view is §87(2)(i). For several years, that provision authorized an agency to withhold “computer access codes.” Based on its legislative history, that provision was intended to permit agencies to withhold access codes which if disclosed would provide the recipient of a code with the ability to gain unauthorized access to information. Insofar as disclosure would enable a person with an access code to gain access to information without the authority to do so, or to shift, add, delete or alter information, i.e., to make electronic transfers, we believe that a bank account or ID number could justifiably be withheld. Section 87(2)(i) was amended in recognition of the need to guarantee that government agencies have the ability to ensure the security of their information and information systems. That provision states that an agency may withhold records or portions of records which “if disclosed, would jeopardize an agency’s capacity to guarantee the security of its information technology assets, such assets encompassing both electronic information systems and infrastructures.” If disclosure of a bank account number could enable a person to gain access to or in any way alter or adversely affect an agency’s electronic information or electronic information systems, we believe that it may justifiably be withheld.
In light of the number of issues that you raised, you may find our website helpful (http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/coogwww.html). On it there are many advisory opinions that address a wide variety of topics, organized by subject and searchable by key terms.
On behalf of the Committee on Open Government we hope this is helpful to you.
cc: Town Board
Hon. Michael Piper, Supervisor
Hon. Nicol L. Baker, Town Clerk