Ms. Kym Vanderbilt
Public Education Association
39 West 32nd Street
New York, NY 10001
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. Vanderbilt:
I have received your letter of July 7 in which you requested an advisory opinion concerning a meeting held by New York City Community School Board #9 on July 1.
According to your letter and the minutes of the meeting, the Board held a "Special Executive Session" for the "Election of Officers". It is your view that the election of officers in executive session is inconsistent with the Open Meetings Law. Moreover, since the minutes fail to indicate "how each member voted", you contend that the Board failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. You also expressed the belief that "those violations invalidate the elections and that the Board must now reconvene the meeting and vote in public."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, it is emphasized 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, an executive session is not separate and distinct from an open meeting; on the contrary, an executive session is a part of an open meeting that must be convened open to the public and preceded by notice given to the news media and by means of posting in accordance with §104 of the Open Meetings Law. In a related vein, a public body cannot enter into an executive session without accomplishing the procedure described in §105(1) of the Open Meetings Law. That provision 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 indicated in the language quoted above, a motion to enter into an executive session must be made during an open meeting and include reference to the "general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered" during the executive session.
In addition, it has been consistently advised that a public body, in a technical sense, cannot schedule or conduct an executive session in advance of a meeting, because a vote to enter into an executive session must be taken at an open meeting during which the executive session is held. In a decision involving the propriety of scheduling executive sessions prior to meetings, it was held that:
"The respondent Board prepared an agenda for each of the five designated regularly scheduled meetings in advance of the time that those meetings were to be held. Each agenda listed 'executive session' as an item of business to be undertaken at the meeting. The petitioner claims that this procedure violates the Open Meetings Law because under the provisions of Public Officers Law section 100 provides that a public body cannot schedule an executive session in advance of the open meeting. Section 100 provides that a public body may conduct an executive session only for certain enumerated purposes after a majority vote of the total membership taken at an open meeting has approved a motion to enter into such a session. Based upon this, it is apparent that petitioner is technically correct in asserting that the respondent cannot decide to enter into an executive session or schedule such a session in advance of a proper vote for the same at an open meeting" [Doolittle, Matter of v. Board of Education, Sup. Cty., Chemung Cty., July 21, 1981; note: the Open Meetings Law has been renumbered and §100 is now §105].
Second, paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may properly be considered during an executive session. As such, a public body cannot conduct an executive session to discuss the subject of its choice.
In my opinion, discussions regarding the election of officers would not have fallen within any of the grounds for entry into executive session. The only provision that appears to be relevant to the matter, §105(1)(f), permits a public body to conduct 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..."
Although the discussion and election of officers involves consideration of particular individuals, it is unlikely that any of the specific subjects included within §105(1)(f) would have been applicable in conjunction with deliberations involving the selection of school board officers. In short, while "matters leading to" certain actions relating to specific persons may be discussed during executive sessions, matters leading to the election of officers is not among them.
Third, with respect to the absence of any record indicating how the members voted, I point out in passing that, as a general rule, a public body may take action during a properly convened executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)]. If action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law. If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared. Various interpretations of the Education Law, §1708(3), however, indicate that, except in situations in which action during a closed session is permitted or required by statute, a school board cannot take action during an executive session [see United Teachers of Northport v. Northport Union Free School District, 50 AD 2d 897 (1975); Kursch et al. v. Board of Education, Union Free School District #1, Town of North Hempstead, Nassau County, 7 AD 2d 922 (1959); Sanna v. Lindenhurst, 107 Misc. 2d 267, modified 85 AD 2d 157, aff'd 58 NY 2d 626 (1982)]. Stated differently, based upon judicial interpretations of the Education Law, a school board generally cannot vote during an executive session, except in rare circumstances in which a statute permits or requires such a vote, none of which would have been present in the situation in question.
With regard to information "detailing how each member voted", I direct your attention to the Freedom of Information Law. Section 87(3)(a) provides that:
"Each agency shall maintain:
(a) a record of the final vote of each member in every agency proceeding in which the member votes..."
Based upon the foregoing, when a final vote is taken by an "agency", which is defined to include a state or municipal board [see §86(3)], such as a school board, a record must be prepared that indicates the manner in which each member who voted cast his or her vote. Ordinarily, records of votes will appear in minutes.
In terms of the rationale of §87(3)(a), it appears that the State Legislature in precluding secret ballot voting sought to ensure that the public has the right to know how its representatives may have voted individually with respect to particular issues. Although the Open Meetings Law does not refer specifically to the manner in which votes are taken or recorded, I believe that the thrust of §87(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law is consistent with the Legislative Declaration that appears at the beginning of the Open Meetings Law and states that:
"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 and 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."
Moreover, in an Appellate Division decision that was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, it was found that "The use of a secret ballot for voting purposes was improper." In so holding, the Court stated that: "When action is taken by formal vote at open or executive sessions, the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law both require open voting and a record of the manner in which each member voted [Public Officers Law §87[a]; §106, " Smithson v. Ilion Housing Authority, 130 AD 2d 965, 967 (1987); aff'd 72 NY 2d 1034 (1988)].
Further, there is case law dealing with the notion a consensus reached at a meeting of a public body. In Previdi v. Hirsch [524 NYS 2d 643 (1988)], which involved a board of education in Westchester County, the issue involved 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).
As such, if a public body 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 the 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 unaware of the members' views on a given issue. If indeed a consensus represents action upon which the a public body relies in carrying out its duties, I believe that the minutes should reflect the actual votes of the members.
Lastly, although it appears that the Board has failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law, I believe that its actions may be voidable, but that they are not automatically void. With respect to the enforcement of the Open Meetings Law, §107(1) states in relevant part that:
"Any aggrieved person shall have 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 an action 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."
I hope that I have been of some assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Community School Board #9
Felton Johnson, Superintendent