June 21, 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.
As you are aware, I have received your inquiry concerning the propriety of an executive session held by the board of the Brooklyn College Association to discuss the budget for the Student Government of the College of Arts and Sciences.
In this regard, first, the state's highest court has held that an equivalent entity, an association at a CUNY community college authorized to review budgets and allocate student activity fees and disbursements, constitutes a "public body" required to comply with the Open Meetings Law [Smith v. CUNY, 92 NY2d 707 (1999)].
Second, 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.
When a discussion by a public body involves consideration of a budget, I believe that it must be conducted in public. Often a discussion concerning the budget has an impact on personnel. Nevertheless, despite its frequent use, 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 or perhaps the creation or elimination of positions, I do not believe that §105(1)(f) could be asserted, even though the discussion may relate to "personnel". For example, if a discussion involves staff reductions or layoffs due to budgetary concerns, the issue in my view would involve matters of policy. Similarly, 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 none of the instances described would the focus involve a "particular person" and how well or poorly an individual has performed his or her duties. To reiterate, 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).
Lastly, since you asked what "relief" there might be if the Association failed to comply with the Open Meetings Law, I point out that that statute includes provisions regarding its enforcement. Subdivision (1) of §107 states that:
"Any aggrieved person shall have the standing to enforce the provisions of this article against a public body by the commencement of a proceeding pursuant to article seventy-eight of the civil practice law and rules, and/or for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. In any such action or proceeding, the court shall have the power, in its discretion, upon good cause shown, to declare any action or part thereof taken in violation of this article void in whole or in part."
Additionally, in an effort to enhance understanding of and compliance with the Open Meetings Law, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the Association. While our opinions are not binding, it is our intent that they be considered educational and persuasive.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Brooklyn College Association