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December 11, 1996

 

 

 

Mr. Gordon Dutter
Metro Justice
36 St. Paul Street
Suite 112
Rochester, NY 14604

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.

Dear Mr. Dutter:

I have received your letter of October 25, in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning the implementation of the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law by the County of Monroe Industrial Development Authority ("the Authority").

The initial issue involves the Authority's "practice of holding 'pre-meetings' closed to the public, before every monthly board...meeting." You added that "[i]t is clear, from discussion in the parts of the meetings open to the public that substantive discussions have been held and decisions made in the 'pre-meetings'."

From my perspective, the "pre-meetings" must be conducted in public in accordance with the Open Meetings Law. I point out the definition of "meeting" [see Open Meetings Law, §102(1) 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 conducted open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to have 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)].

The decision rendered by the Court of Appeals was precipitated by contentions made by public bodies that so-called "work sessions" and similar gatherings, such as "agenda sessions," 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 the Authority is present to discuss Authority business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.

Further, because the "pre-meeting" is a "meeting", it must be preceded by notice of the time and place given to the news media and by means of posting pursuant to §104 of the Open Meetings Law. Therefore, if a pre-meeting is scheduled to begin at 11:45, notice must be given to that effect.

The second issue involves the Authority's approval of an amendment to its by-laws permitting its meetings to be held and decisions made "by telephone or teleconference."

While there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that would preclude members of a public body from conferring individually or by telephone, a series of communications between individual members or telephone calls among the members which results in a collective decision, or a meeting held by means of a telephone conference, would in my opinion be inconsistent with law.

As indicated earlier, §102(1) of the Open Meetings Law defines the term "meeting" to mean "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business". 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 the Commission. While nothing in the Open Meetings Law refers to the capacity of a member to participate or vote at a remote location by telephone, it has consistently been advised that a member of a public body cannot cast a vote unless he or she is physically present at a meeting of the body.

It is noted, too, that the definition of "public body" [see Open Meetings Law, §102(2)] refers to entities that are required to conduct public business by means of a quorum. In this regard, the term "quorum" is defined in §41 of the General Construction Law, which has been in effect since 1909. The cited provision 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, 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 upon the language quoted above, a public body cannot carry out its powers or duties except by means of an affirmative vote of a majority of its total membership taken at a meeting duly held upon reasonably notice to all of the members. As such, it is my view that a public body has the capacity to carry out its duties only at meetings during which a majority of the total membership has convened.

Additionally, I direct your attention to the legislative declaration of the Open Meetings Law, §100, which states in part that:

"It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy."

Based on the foregoing, the Open Meetings Law is intended to provide the public with the right to observe the performance of public officials in their deliberations. That intent cannot be realized if members of a public body conduct public business as a body or vote by phone.

In short, while I believe that members of public bodies may consult with one another individually or by phone, I do not believe that they may validly conduct meetings by means of telephone conferences or make collective determinations by means of a series of "one on one" conversations or by means of telephonic communications.

Your remaining questions pertain to a request made under the Freedom of Information Law. While numerous records that you requested were made available, you were informed there was no documentation concerning other aspects of your request and asked whether the Authority should have so indicated in writing.

In my view, an agency must respond to a request by making the records sought available, denying the request in whole or in part in writing, or by indicating in writing that records are not maintained by the agency or do not exist (see regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government, 21 NYCRR Part 1401). I note that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and that §89(3) of the Law provides in part that an agency need not create or prepare new records in response to a request.

Lastly, you asked whether there is a particular length of time during which a request for records "is good" and how many times requested records may be inspected. While it has been held that an agency must permit an applicant to review records throughout its regular business hours [see Murtha v. Leonard, 210 AD 2d 441 (1994)], I know of no provision or decision that deals with the number of times that a record may be inspected or how long a request may be considered to be active. From my perspective, the principle of reasonableness should govern. If a request involves a great number of records, I do not believe that an agency can restrict inspection to a single day; rather, it should provide an opportunity to the applicant to review all of the records, perhaps on a piecemeal basis so as not to unduly interfere with the agency's ability to perform its duties. Similarly, I know of no limitation concerning the inspection of records. However, I do not believe that an agency must make the same records available over and over if such disclosure would unnecessarily interfere with its capacity to carry out its duties.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: County of Monroe Industrial Development Authority
Martin Lawson