February 1, 2002
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 I have received your letter of January 10 in which you sought an opinion concerning the implementation of the Open Meetings Law by the City of North Tonawanda Common Council. You wrote that the Council conducts its meetings in two locations, one of which is not large enough to accommodate those who might want to attend. You also questioned the status of "work sessions" and the Council's practice of rescheduling meetings on short notice.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, although the Open Meetings Law does not specify where meetings must be held, §103(a) of the Law states in part that "Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public..." Further, the intent of the Open Meetings Law is clearly stated in §100 as follows:
"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 an 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. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it."
As such, the Open Meetings Law confers a right upon the public to attend meetings of public bodies and to observe the performance of public officials who serve on such bodies.
From my perspective, every provision of law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. In my opinion, if it is known in advance of a meeting that a larger crowd is likely to attend than the usual meeting location will accommodate, and if a larger facility is available, it would be reasonable and consistent with the intent of the Law to hold the meeting in the larger facility. Conversely, assuming the same facts, I believe that it would be unreasonable to hold a meeting in a facility that would not accommodate those interested in attending.
The preceding paragraph appeared in an advisory opinion rendered in 1993 and was relied upon in Crain v. Reynolds (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, August 12, 1998). In that decision, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York conducted a meeting in a room that could not accommodate those interested in attending, even though other facilities were available that would have accommodated those persons. The court in Crain granted the petitioners' motion for an order precluding the Board of Trustees from implementing a resolution adopted at the meeting at issue until certain conditions were met to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
It is also noted that §103(b) of the Open Meetings Law states that:
"Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free physical access to the physically handicapped, as defined in subdivision five of section fifty or the public buildings law."
Based upon the foregoing, there is no obligation upon a public body to construct a new facility or to renovate an existing facility to permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. However, I believe that the Law does impose a responsibility upon a public body to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. Therefore, if, for example, the Council has the capacity to hold its meetings in a room that is accessible to handicapped persons, I believe that the meetings should be held in the room that is most likely to accommodate the needs of those people.
Second, the Open Meetings Law applies to meetings of public bodies, such as a city council, and 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)].
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, if a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. Since a workshop or work session held by a majority of a public body is a "meeting", it would have the same responsibilities in relation to openness, 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.
Lastly, with respect to notice of meetings and the capacity to conduct meetings with minimal notice, §104 of the Open Meetings Law 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 the local news media and by posting notice in one or more designated locations.
I point out that the judicial interpretation of the Open Meetings Law suggests 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 necessity to do so.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings Law, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the City Council.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: City Council