Ms. Betty A. Loriz
156 Castle Hill Road
Parksville, NY 12768
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 Ms. Loriz:
I have received your letter of June 2, which reached this office on June 9.
Enclosed with your letter is a photograph "showing the room where Liberty residents appear before their assessor, Patricia Frey, and three members of Assessment Review Board when they grieve their assessments." The room, although apparently pleasant, is small, and it is your view that "grievances are supposed to be heard" in larger facility "so that other grieving residents may listen and benefit from the hearings."
You have asked for my views on the matter. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, in my opinion, a board of assessment review is clearly a "public body" as defined by §102(2) of the Open Meetings Law. Consequently, I believe that its meetings must be conducted in public to the extent required by the Open Meetings Law, and that its hearings must be held in public. It is noted that Counsel to the State Board of Equalization and Assessment has offered the same opinion (6 Op. Counsel SBEA No. 125). Further, I point out that §525 of the Real Property Tax Law entitled "Hearing and determination of complaints" states in part that:
"The assessor shall have the right to be heard on any complaint and upon his request his remarks with respect to any complaint shall be recorded in the minutes of the board. Such remarks may be made only in open and public session of the board of assessment review."
Second, although the Open Meetings Law does not specify where meetings must be held, §103(a) of the Law states in part that "Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public..." Further, the intent of the Open Meetings Law is clearly stated in §100 as follows:
"It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of an able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it."
As such, the Open Meetings Law confers a right upon the public to attend meetings of public bodies and to observe the performance of public officials who serve on such bodies.
From my perspective, every provision of law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. In my opinion, if it is known in advance of a meeting that a larger crowd is likely to attend than the usual meeting location will accommodate, and if a larger facility is available, it would be reasonable and consistent with the intent of the Law to hold the meeting in the larger facility. Conversely, assuming the same facts, I believe that it would be unreasonable to hold a meeting in a facility that would not accommodate those interested in attending.
Lastly, §103(b) of the Open Meetings Law states that:
"Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free physical access to the physically handicapped, as defined in subdivision five of section fifty or the public buildings law."
The same direction appears in §74-a of the Public Officers Law regarding public hearings. Based upon those provisions, there is no obligation upon a public body to construct a new facility or to renovate an existing facility to permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. However, I believe that the Law does impose a responsibility upon a public body to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. Therefore, if, for example, the Board has the capacity to hold its meetings in a room that is accessible to handicapped persons, I believe that the meetings should be held in the room that is most likely to accommodate the needs of those people.
I hope that I have been of some assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Jack Simons, Supervisor