May 24, 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.
I have received your letter of April 24 in which you requested an opinion concerning the status of a certain gathering in relation to the Open Meetings Law.
By way of background, you and others attended a meeting on April 11 to discuss arrangements for a safe alcohol free event to be held for Greenwich students and their dates following a prom. The matter was considered "critical" due to the recent deaths of two students following an accident that involved the use of alcohol, and on April 14, 32 residents gathered at the school to consider what the community could or should do. You wrote that among those who attended were "members of the Greenwich and Easton Town Boards, the Village of Greenwich Board, Greenwich Central School Board, School Administration, members of the local clergy, law enforcement, district attorney and the Council for Prevention." You added "[t]his was a group of concerned residents of our communities who were gathered to discuss social issues of parents and children in an effort to save the lives of our young people", "a gathering that crossed many professions including people who happen to be elected officials", and that it "was in no way a Town Board, Village Board or School Board meeting." Nevertheless, you indicated that you have been "chastised" by a local newspaper for holding an "illegal or closed door meeting."
From my perspective, as you described the gathering, it would not have constituted a meeting of the Town Board or any other public body, and the Open Meetings Law would not have applied. In this regard, the Open Meetings Law pertains to meetings of public bodies, and §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". 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, 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)].
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 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. However, if there is no intent that a majority of public body will gather for purpose of conducting public business, collectively, as a body, but rather for the purpose of gaining education, training, or to listen to a speaker as part of an audience or group, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would be applicable. In this instance, it is my understanding those present attended as concerned citizens, and not in their capacities or functioning as members of municipal boards.
In the same decision as that referenced above, the Court specified that "not every assembling of the members of a public body was intended to be included within the definition", indicating that social events or chance meetings do not fall within the Open Meetings Law (id., 416). I note that similar issues have arisen at workshops and seminars during which I have spoken and which were attended by many, including perhaps a majority of the membership of several public bodies. Some of those persons have asked whether their presence at those gatherings fell within the scope of the Open Meetings Law. In brief, I have responded that, since the members of those entities did not attend for the purpose of conducting public business as a body, the Open Meetings Law, in my opinion, did not apply. It would appear that the same conclusion could be reached with respect to the matter that you described.
As you requested, copies of this response will be forwarded to those identified in your letter.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Hon. Chris McCormick
Hon. Daniel P. Shaw
Mr. Ken Tingley
The Greenwich Journal and Salem Press
Hon. Elaine Kelly