June 26, 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 facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received Mr. Dolan's letters of May 22 and May 28, and Mr. Jones' letter of June 5, each of which involves practices of the Amherst Town Board relative to the Open Meetings Law. In consideration of the issues that you raised, I offer the following comments.
First, there are two vehicles that may authorize a public body to discuss public business in private. One involves entry into an executive session. Section 102(3) of the Open Meetings Law defines the phrase "executive session" to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded, and 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 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. Therefore, a public body may not conduct an executive session to discuss the subject of its choice.
The other vehicle for excluding the public from a meeting involves "exemptions." Section 108 of the Open Meetings Law contains three exemptions. When an exemption applies, the Open Meetings Law does not, and the requirements that would operate with respect to executive sessions are not in effect. Stated differently, to discuss a matter exempted from the Open Meetings Law, a public body need not follow the procedure imposed by §105(1) that relates to entry into an executive session. Further, although executive sessions may be held only for particular purposes, there is no such limitation that relates to matters that are exempt from the coverage of the Open Meetings Law.
Second, the provision pertaining to litigation, §105(1)(d), permits a public body to enter into executive session to discuss "proposed, pending or current litigation." While the courts have not sought to define the distinction between "proposed" and "pending" or between "pending" and "current" litigation, they have provided direction concerning the scope of the exception in a manner consistent with the description of the general intent of the grounds for entry into executive session suggested in my remarks in the preceding paragraph, i.e., that they are intended to enable public bodies to avoid some sort of identifiable harm. For instance, it has been determined that the mere possibility, threat or fear of litigation would be insufficient to conduct an executive session. Specifically, it was held that:
"The purpose of paragraph d is 'to enable a public body to discuss pending litigation privately, without baring its strategy to its adversary through mandatory public meetings' (Matter of Concerned Citizens to Review Jefferson Val. Mall v. Town Bd. Of Town of Yorktown, 83 AD 2d 612, 613, 441 NYS 2d 292). The belief of the town's attorney that a decision adverse to petitioner 'would almost certainly lead to litigation' does not justify the conducting of this public business in an executive session. To accept this argument would be to accept the view that any public body could bar the public from its meetings simply be expressing the fear that litigation may result from actions taken therein. Such a view would be contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the exception" [Weatherwax v. Town of Stony Point, 97 AD 2d 840, 841 (1983)].
Based upon the foregoing, I believe that the exception is intended to permit a public body to discuss its litigation strategy behind closed doors, rather than issues that might eventually result in litigation. Again, §105(1)(d) would not permit a public body to conduct an executive session due to a possibility or fear of litigation. As the court in Weatherwax suggested, if the possibility or fear of litigation served as a valid basis for entry into executive session, there could be little that remains to be discussed in public, and the intent of the Open Meetings Law would be thwarted.
In my view, only to the extent that the Board discusses its litigation strategy could an executive session be properly held under §105(1)(d).
I note, too, that the courts have provided direction with respect to the sufficiency of a motion to discuss litigation, it has been held that:
"It is insufficient to merely regurgitate the statutory language; to wit, 'discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation'. This boilerplate recitation does not comply with the intent of the statute. To validly convene an executive session for discussion of proposed, pending or current litigation, the public body must identify with particularity the pending, proposed or current litigation to be discussed during the executive session" [Daily Gazette Co. , Inc. v. Town Board, Town of Cobleskill, 44 NYS 2d 44, 46 (1981), emphasis added by court].
With respect to the assertion of the attorney-client privilege, relevant is §108(3), which exempts from the Open Meetings Law:
"...any matter made confidential by federal or state law."
When an attorney-client relationship has been invoked, it is considered confidential under §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Therefore, if an attorney and client establish a privileged relationship, the communications made pursuant to that relationship would in my view be confidential under state law and, therefore, exempt from the Open Meetings Law.
In terms of background, it has long been held that a municipal board may establish a privileged relationship with its attorney [People ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, 9 NYS 243 (1889); Pennock v. Lane, 231 NYS 2d 897, 898 (1962)]. However, such a relationship is in my opinion operable only when a municipal board or official seeks the legal advice of an attorney acting in his or her capacity as an attorney, and where there is no waiver of the privilege by the client.
In a judicial determination that described the parameters of the attorney-client relationship and the conditions precedent to its initiation, it was held that:
"In general, 'the privilege applies only if (1) the asserted holder of the privilege is or sought to become a client; (2) the person to whom the communication was made (a) is a member of the bar of a court, or his subordinate and (b) in connection with this communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed (a) by his client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of securing primarily either (i) an opinion on law or (ii) legal services (iii) assistance in some legal proceedings, and not (d) for the purpose of committing a crime or tort; and (4) the privilege has been (a) claimed and (b) not waived by the client'" [People v. Belge, 59 AD 2d 307, 399, NYS 2d 539, 540 (1977)].
Insofar as the Board seeks legal advice from its attorney and the attorney renders legal advice, I believe that the attorney-client privilege may validly be asserted and that communications made within the scope of the privilege would be outside the coverage of the Open Meetings Law. Therefore, even though there may be no basis for conducting an executive session pursuant to §105 of the Open Meetings Law, a private discussion might validly be held based on the proper assertion of the attorney-client privilege pursuant to §108, and legal advice may be requested even though litigation or possible litigation is not an issue. In that case, while the litigation exception for entry into executive session would not apply, there may be a proper assertion of the attorney-client privilege.
I note that the mere presence of an attorney does not signify the existence of an attorney- client relationship; in order to assert the attorney-client privilege, the attorney must in my view be providing services in which the expertise of an attorney is needed and sought. Further, often at some point in a discussion, the attorney stops giving legal advice and a public body may begin discussing or deliberating independent of the attorney. When that point is reached, I believe that the attorney-client privilege has ended and that the body should return to an open meeting.
While it is not my intent to be overly technical, as suggested earlier, the procedural methods of entering into an executive session and asserting the attorney-client privilege differ. In the case of the former, the Open Meetings Law applies. In the case of the latter, because the matter is exempted from the Open Meetings Law, the procedural steps associated with conducting executive sessions do not apply. It is suggested that when a meeting is closed due to the exemption under consideration, a public body should inform the public that it is seeking the legal advice of its attorney, which is a matter made confidential by law, rather than referring to an executive session.
Third, although it is used frequently, the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. While one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters, from my perspective, 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. Matters of policy that affect personnel, consideration of the budget or the creation or elimination of positions, for example, typically cannot validly be considered in executive session.
It has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or "specific personnel matters" 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.
It is noted that the Appellate Division has confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving the establishment and functions of a position, the Court stated that:
"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 ), and it is apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).
"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue', does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]). Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 620 NY 2d 573, 575; 207AD 2d 55, 58 (1994)] Next, the only direct reference in the Open Meetings Law to "contract negotiations" pertains to collective bargaining negotiations. Specifically, §105(1)(e) permits a public body to enter into executive session to discuss "collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law." Article Fourteen of the Civil Service Law is commonly known as the "Taylor Law", and it deals with the relationship between public employers and public employee unions. In short, not all negotiations involve collective bargaining, and the application of §105(1)(e) is limited.
With respect to the notion of a "consensus", I am aware of but one decision that deals with that term. In Previdi v. Hirsch [524 NYS 2d 643 (1988)], which involved a board of education, the issue pertained to access to records, i.e., minutes of executive sessions held under the Open Meetings Law. Although it was assumed by the court that the executive sessions were properly held, it was found that "this was no basis for respondents to avoid publication of minutes pertaining to the 'final determination' of any action, and 'the date and vote thereon'" (id., 646). The court stated that:
"The fact that respondents characterize the vote as taken by 'consensus' does not exclude the recording of same as a 'formal vote'. To hold otherwise would invite circumvention of the statute.
"Moreover, respondents' interpretation of what constitutes the 'final determination of such action' is overly restrictive. The reasonable intendment of the statute is that 'final action' refers to the matter voted upon, not final determination of, as in this case, the litigation discussed or finality in terms of exhaustion or remedies" (id. 646).
In my opinion, when the Board reaches a "consensus" that is reflective of its final determination of an issue, I believe that minutes must be prepared that indicate the manner in which each member voted. I recognize that public bodies often attempt to present themselves as being unanimous and that a ratification of a vote is often carried out in public. Nevertheless, if a unanimous ratification does not indicate how the members actually voted behind closed doors, the public may be aware of the members' views on a given issue. If indeed a consensus represents action upon which the Board relies in carrying out its duties, or when the Board, in effect, reaches agreement on a particular subject, I believe that the minutes should reflect the actual votes of the members.
In contrast, a "straw vote", or something like it, that is not binding and does not represent members' action that could be construed as final, could in my view be taken in executive session when it represents a means of ascertaining whether additional discussion is warranted or necessary. If a "straw vote" does not represent a final action or final determination of the Board, I do not believe that minutes including the votes of the members would be required to be prepared.
In a related vein, when action is taken by a public body, I believe that it must be memorialized in minutes, and §106 of the Open Meetings Law provides that:
"1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.
2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.
3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."
In view of the foregoing, it is clear in my opinion that minutes of open meetings must include reference to action taken by a public body.
Lastly, Mr. Dolan made reference to a situation in which candidates for a position may be interviewed and in which the Board planned "to do the interviews by having board members ferry in and out of the room, being careful not to have a quorum at any one time." In this regard, it is unclear why those steps would be necessary to conduct business in private. Interviewing a candidate for a position would involve a matter leading to the appointment or employment of a particular person, as well as consideration of the individual's employment history. That being so, I believe that an executive session could properly be held under §105(1)(h). In terms of "ferrying" members in and out of the room, in a case involving a series of less than quorum meetings held by members of a board of education, the Appellate Division found that there was no violation of the Open Meetings Law, stating that there was "no evidence to indicate that the members of respondent engaged in any attempt to evade the requirements of the Open Meetings Law" [Tri-Village Publishers, Inc. v. St. Johnsville Board of Education, 110 AD2d 932, 933 (1985)]. From my perspective, the Court clearly inferred that if the less than quorum gatherings were intended to circumvent the Open Meetings Law, the Board would have acted in contravention of that statute.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Town Board