Mr. Michael O'Shea
27 Bruce Lane
East Hampton, NY 11937
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.
Dear Mr. O'Shea:
I have received your letter of January 13 in which you requested an advisory opinion concerning the Open Meetings Law.
According to your letter, neither you nor any member of your family has ever been employed by or attended the Springs Union Free School District. Having attended a meeting of the District's Board of Education on April 16, the Board entered into an executive session to discuss "personnel matters". Later that year, you learned that you were the subject of the discussion. You asked whether it is proper for a school board to conduct an executive session to discuss a "private citizen", to "label as 'personnel matters' discussions of this sort", or to discuss you without your knowledge.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Open Meetings Law is based upon a presumption of openness. Stated differently, meetings of public bodies must be conducted open to the public, except to the extent that the subject matter under consideration may properly be discussed during an executive session.
It is noted that every meeting must be convened as an open meeting, and that §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. Consequently, it is clear that an executive session is not separate and distinct from an open meeting, but rather that it is a part of an open meeting. Moreover, the Open Meetings 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.
Second, perhaps the most frequently cited ground for entry into executive session is the basis that is the focus of your inquiry, the so-called "personnel" exception. Although it is used often, the word "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. While one of the grounds for entry into executive session relates to personnel matters, the language of that provision is precise. In its original form, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law 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 now 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 under that provision may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when one or more of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) are considered.
Although the language of §105(1)(f) is not restricted to issues involving prospective, current or former employees, it does not permit a public body to discuss every subject that might arise in relation to a "particular person". Again, the language of that provision is precise and pertains only to certain enumerated subjects that relate to an individual. While the topic of the executive session in question is unclear, on the basis of your letter, there is no indication that §105(1)(f) or any other basis for entry into executive session would have applied.
Lastly, due to the presence of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), 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.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings Law, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the Board of Education.
I hope that I have been of some assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education