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December 8, 1995

 

 

Mr. Scott Wexler
New York Tavern & Restaurant Association
25 Elk Street
Albany, NY 12207

Dear Mr. Wexler:

I have received your letter of November 14 in which you raised a series of questions concerning meetings of public bodies and access to records.

Your first area of inquiry involves the subjects that may be discussed during an executive session, and as I understand your commentary, a specific issue pertains to the propriety of reviewing a draft ordinance in an executive session. In this regard, the subjects that may appropriately be considered in executive are described in paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1) of the Open Meetings Law. Rather than enumerating them, I have enclosed a copy of the statute. However, from my perspective, a discussion of draft ordinance would not fall within any of the grounds for entry into executive session.

In a related area, you asked "what public records of an executive session must be kept and made available for public inspection. Section 106 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to minutes, and subdivision (2) of that provision deals with minutes of executive sessions and states that:

"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.

In addition, subdivision (3) of §106 provides that:

"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 on the foregoing, when a public body takes action during an executive session, minutes indicating the nature of the action taken, the date, and the vote of each member must be prepared within one week and made available to the extent required by the Freedom of Information Law. It is noted, however, that if a public body merely discusses an issue or issues during an executive session but takes no action, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared.

If minutes or notes are prepared concerning an executive session even when there is no requirement to do so, any such documents would fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. It is noted that §86(4) of the statute defines the term "record" broadly to mean:

"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."

Based upon the foregoing any notes or minutes that are prepared would constitute "records" subject to rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Law.

This is not to suggest that all such records would be available. 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. Therefore, the specific contents of the records would determine the extent to which records are available or deniable.

Next, you asked whether "a committee (standing or ad hoc) of a County Board of Health must provide public notice of a committee meeting (what type of notice required, how much notice)."

By way of background, judicial decisions indicate generally that ad hoc entities consisting of persons other than members of public bodies having no power to take final action fall outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. As stated in those decisions: "it has long been held that the mere giving of advice, even about governmental matters is not itself a governmental function" [Goodson-Todman Enterprises, Ltd. v. Town Board of Milan, 542 NYS 2d 373, 374, 151 AD 2d 642 (1989); Poughkeepsie Newspapers v. Mayor's Intergovernmental Task Force, 145 AD 2d 65, 67 (1989); see also New York Public Interest Research Group v. Governor's Advisory Commission, 507 NYS 2d 798, aff'd with no opinion, 135 AD 2d 1149, motion for leave to appeal denied, 71 NY 2d 964 (1988)]. Therefore, an advisory body such as a citizens' advisory committee would not in my opinion be subject to the Open Meetings Law.

However, when a committee consists solely of members of a public body, such as a board of health, I believe that the Open Meetings Law would be applicable. The phrase "public body" is defined in §102(2) of the Open Meetings Law to include:

"...any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body."

Although the original definition of "public body" enacted in 1976 made reference to entities that "transact" public business, the current definition as amended in 1979 makes reference to entities that "conduct" public business and added specific reference to "committees, subcommittees and similar bodies" of a public body.

In view of the definition of "public body", I believe that any entity consisting of two or more members of a public body would fall within the requirements of the Open Meetings Law [see also Syracuse United Neighbors v. City of Syracuse, 80 AD 2d 984 (1981)]. Therefore, a standing committee of Board members in my view constitutes a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law that is separate and distinct from the Board of Education. Further, as a general matter, I believe that a quorum consists of a majority of the total membership of a body (see e.g., General Construction Law, section 41). As such, in the case of a committee consisting of four, for example, a quorum would be three.

When a public body, including a committee, intends to gather to discuss public business, I believe that it is required to provide notice in accordance with §104 of the Open Meetings Law. That provision states 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. Therefore, if, for example, there is a need to convene quickly, the notice requirements can generally be met by telephoning the local news media and by posting notice in one or more designated locations.

It is noted that while notice of the time and place must be given prior to all meetings, there is no requirement that an agenda or notification of issues to be discussed be given, unless a public body has established rules or procedures requiring additional information in its notices of meetings.

With respect to access to records, you asked whether "a draft ordinance prepared for the Board of Health and discussed openly at a public meeting [is] deemed to be available to the public." Similarly, you questioned whether "reports prepared by staff and submitted to the Board" are accessible.

In this regard, 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 records that you described would fall within the scope of one of the grounds for denial, §87(2)(g). However, due to the structure of that provision, it often requires disclosure. The cited provision enables an agency to withhold records that:

"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:

i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;

ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;

iii. final agency policy or determinations; or

iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."

It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.

in a case involving intra-agency materials, the Court of Appeals specified that the contents of those materials determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:

"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials,' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[2][g][i], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" [Xerox Corporation v. Town of Webster, 65 NY 2d 131, 133 (1985)]. Notwithstanding the authority to withhold records or perhaps portions of records in appropriate circumstances, I point out that the Freedom of Information Law is permissive. While an agency may withhold records in appropriate circumstances, it is not required to do so. As stated by the Court of Appeals:

"while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling which 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 v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)].

From my perspective, insofar as a record is disclosed at an open meeting, an agency would have waived any right to withhold it that might otherwise have existed. While it has been held that an erroneous or inadvertent disclosure does not create a right of access on the part of the public [see McGraw-Edison v. Williams, 509 NYS 2d 285 (1986)], a disclosure at an open meeting would be purposeful and intentional rather than inadvertent. If that is so, even though there may have been a basis for withholding prior to a public disclosure of the record, that activity in my view would preclude an agency from withholding any portion of the document that was disclosed.

Lastly, you questioned the propriety of a charge of seventy-five cents per page for certain records. Unless a different fee is prescribed by statute, under §87(1)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law, an agency cannot charge in excess of twenty-five cents per photocopy up to nine by fourteen inches.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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