May 28, 2002
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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 in which you indicated that the you are member of a board of education, and that the Board has adopted a policy which states in part that: "Matters discussed in executive sessions must be treated as confidential; that is, never discussed out of executive session." You have questioned the propriety of the policy. In addition, you have sought a recommendation concerning your ability to divulge information that should not have been discussed during an executive session. By means of example you wrote that:
"[Y]our superintendent uses the 'Specific history of a particular person' reason to move into executive session to discuss financial problems like double bookings of revenues, or other items that create a dollar shortfall in out budget. He says that the public will demand to know who did it or make a call that it was the business manager, and this is why the confidentiality. [You] believe this is wrong, and want to discuss the financial issues in public without any personnel discussion. When [you] raise this, the board majority accepts the superintendent's personnel excuse to not do so, and continues the executive session under the confidentiality cover."
From my perspective, the policy is inconsistent with law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, it appears that the use of an executive session in the circumstance that you described would have been inappropriate.
By way of background, as a general matter, the Open Meetings Law is based upon a presumption of openness. Stated differently, meetings of public bodies must be conducted open to the public, unless there is a basis for entry into executive session. Moreover, the Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an executive session. Specifically, §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. It is true that one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters. From my perspective, however, 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 my 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.
When a discussion concerns matters of policy, such as the manner in which public money will be expended or allocated, the functions of a department, the creation or elimination of positions or matters relating to the budget, I do not believe that §105(1)(f) could be asserted, even though the discussion may relate to "personnel". For example, if a discussion of possible layoffs relates to positions and whether those positions should be retained or abolished, the discussion would involve the means by which public monies would be allocated. In short, in order to enter into an executive session pursuant to §105(1)(f), I believe that the discussion must focus on a particular person (or persons) in relation to a topic listed in that provision. As stated judicially, "it would seem that under the statute matters related to personnel generally or to personnel policy should be discussed in public for such matters do not deal with any particular person" (Doolittle v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Chemung County, October 20, 1981).
It has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" 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 my 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.
Second, both the Open Meetings Law, and its companion, the Freedom of Information Law are permissive. While the Open Meetings Law authorizes public bodies to conduct executive sessions in circumstances described in paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1), there is no requirement that an executive session be held even though a public body has right to do so. Further, the introductory language of §105(1), which prescribes a procedure that must be accomplished before an executive session may be held, clearly indicates that a public body "may" conduct an executive session only after having completed that procedure. If, for example, a motion is made to conduct an executive session for a valid reason, and the motion is not carried, the public body could either discuss the issue in public, or table the matter for discussion in the future. Similarly, although the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has been held by the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, that the exceptions are permissive rather than mandatory, and that an agency may choose to disclose records even though the authority to withhold exists [Capital Newspapers v. Burns], 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)].
I am unaware of any statute that would prohibit a Board member from disclosing the kind of information to which you referred. Even though information might have been obtained during an executive session properly held or from records marked "confidential", I note that the term "confidential" in my view has a narrow and precise technical meaning. For records or information to be validly characterized as confidential, I believe that such a claim must be based upon a statute, an act of Congress or the State Legislature, that specifically confers or requires confidentiality.
For instance, if a discussion by a board of education concerns a record pertaining to a particular student (i.e., in the case of consideration of disciplinary action, an educational program, an award, etc.), the discussion would have to occur in private and the record would have to be withheld insofar as public discussion or disclosure would identify the student. As you may be aware, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g) generally prohibits an educational agency from disclosing education records or information derived from those records that are identifiable to a student, unless the parents of the student consent to disclosure. In the context of the Open Meetings Law, a discussion concerning a student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law and would be exempted from the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §108(3)]. In the context of the Freedom of Information Law, an education record would be specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in accordance with §87(2)(a). In both contexts, I believe that a board of education, its members and school district employees would be prohibited from disclosing, because a statute requires confidentiality. Again, however, no statute of which I am aware would confer or require confidentiality with respect to the matters described in your correspondence.
In a case in which the issue was whether discussions occurring during an executive session held by a school board could be considered "privileged", it was held that "there is no statutory provision that describes the matter dealt with at such a session as confidential or which in any way restricts the participants from disclosing what took place" (Runyon v. Board of Education, West Hempstead Union Free School District No. 27, Supreme Court, Nassau County, January 29, 1987).
While there may be no prohibition against disclosure of the information acquired during executive sessions or records that could be withheld, the foregoing is not intended to suggest such disclosures would be uniformly appropriate or ethical. Obviously, the purpose of an executive session is to enable members of public bodies to deliberate, to speak freely and to develop strategies in situations in which some degree of secrecy is permitted. Similarly, the grounds for withholding records under the Freedom of Information Law relate in most instances to the ability to prevent some sort of harm. In both cases, inappropriate disclosures could work against the interests of a public body as a whole and the public generally. Further, a unilateral disclosure by a member of a public body might serve to defeat or circumvent the principles under which those bodies are intended to operate.
Historically, I believe that public bodies were created to order to reach collective determinations, determinations that better reflect various points of view within a community than a single decision maker could reach alone. Members of boards should not in my opinion be unanimous in every instance; on the contrary, they should represent disparate points of view which, when conveyed as part of a deliberative process, lead to fair and representative decision making. Nevertheless, notwithstanding distinctions in points of view, the decision or consensus by the majority of a public body should in my opinion be recognized and honored by those members who may dissent. Disclosure made contrary to or in the absence of consent by the majority could result in unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, impairment of collective bargaining negotiations or even interference with criminal or other investigations. In those kinds of situations, even though there may be no statute that prohibits disclosure, release of information could be damaging to individuals and the functioning of government.
I hope that I have been of assistance.