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August 16, 1993

 

 

Mr. Gene D. Mentzer
269 Pine Ridge Drive
Wappingers Falls, N.Y. 12590

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. Mentzer:

I have received your letter of August 5 and the materials attached to it, which reached this office on August 12.

You have raised a series of issues concerning the implementation of the Open Meetings Law by Wappingers Central School District Board of Education and its stuff. You referred to executive sessions held prior to meetings and "discussing and voting on public issues in executive sessions and not providing minutes." In addition, you wrote that raises were recently given to three administrators, but that there "was no motion made or vote taken in the public meeting that followed nor was there a record of the salary increase in the minutes." It has been contended that no vote concerning the increases was required, and you were informed that minutes of executive sessions are generally not prepared.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, it is noted that the definition of "meeting" has been broadly interpreted by the courts. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, found that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a "meeting" that must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take action and regardless of the manner in which a gathering may be characterized [see Orange County Publications v. Council of the City of Newburgh, 60 AD 2d 409, aff'd 45 NY 2d 947 (1978)].

I point out that the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals was precipitated by contentions made by public bodies that so-called "work sessions" and similar gatherings held for the purpose of discussion, but without an intent to take action, fell outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. In discussing the issue, the Appellate Division, whose determination was unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals, stated that:

"We believe that the Legislature intended to include more than the mere formal act of voting or the formal execution of an official document. Every step of the decision-making process, including the decision itself, is a necessary preliminary to formal action. Formal acts have always been matters of public record and the public has always been made aware of how its officials have voted on an issue. There would be no need for this law if this was all the Legislature intended. Obviously, every thought, as well as every affirmative act of a public official as it relates to and is within the scope of one's official duties is a matter of public concern. It is the entire decision-making process that the Legislature intended to affect by the enactment of this statute" (60 AD 2d 409, 415).

The court also dealt with the characterization of meetings as "informal," stating that:

"The word 'formal' is defined merely as 'following or according with established form, custom, or rule' (Webster's Third New Int. Dictionary). We believe that it was inserted to safeguard the rights of members of a public body to engage in ordinary social transactions, but not to permit the use of this safeguard as a vehicle by which it precludes the application of the law to gatherings which have as their true purpose the discussion of the business of a public body" (id.).

Based upon the direction given by the courts, when a majority of the Board gathers to discuss District business, in their capacities as Board members, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.

Second, the phrase "executive session" is defined in §102(3) of the Open Meetings Law to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded. As such, an executive session is not separate and distinct from a meeting, but rather is a portion of an open meeting. The Law also contains a procedure that must be accomplished during an open meeting before an executive session may be held. 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 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[1] provides that a public body cannot schedule an executive session in advance of the open meeting. Section 100[1] 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].

Therefore, even when a subject to be discussed could properly be considered during an executive session, I believe that a public body must first convene an open meeting, preceded by notice of the time and place given in accordance with §104 of the Open Meetings Law. Following the initiation of the meeting in public, when a subject arises that may be discussed in executive session, the procedure described earlier in §105(1) should be carried out.

Third, I am unaware of whether the Board was required to act with regard to the raises given to administrators. Since I am not an expert with respect to the Education Law, it is suggested that you seek guidance from the Office of Counsel at the State Education Department. However, 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.

It is noted 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. Nevertheless, various interpretations of the Education Law, §1708(3), 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. As such, minutes of executive sessions need not generally be prepared by a board of education.

Further, if a public body reaches a consensus upon which it relies, I believe that minutes reflective of decisions reached must be prepared and made available. 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).

Therefore, if 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 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 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, the minutes, in my view, should reflect the actual votes of the members.

Lastly, the Assistant Superintendent for Personnel, in the context of your inquiries, wrote that information is "confidential because it involves personnel." In this regard, while information might have been obtained during an executive session properly held or from records characterized as "confidential", the term "confidential" in my view has a narrow and precise technical meaning. For records or information to be validly characterized as confidential, I believe that such a claim must be based upon a statute that specifically confers or requires confidentiality.

For example, if a discussion by a board of education concerns a record pertaining to a particular student (i.e., in the case of consideration of disciplinary action, an educational program, an award, etc.), the discussion would have to occur in private and the record would have to be withheld insofar as a public discussion or disclosure would identify the student. As you may be aware, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g) generally prohibits an agency from disclosing education records or information derived from those records that are identifiable to a student, unless the parents of the student consent to disclosure. In the context of the Open Meetings Law, a discussion concerning a student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law and would be exempted from the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §108(3)]. In the context of the Freedom of Information Law, an education record would be specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in accordance with §87(2)(a). In both contexts, I believe that a board of education, its members and school district employees would be prohibited from disclosing, absent the consent of the parents of a student, because a statute requires confidentiality. However, no statute of which I am aware would generally confer or require confidentiality with respect to the matters discussed during executive sessions.

In a situation in which the issue was "whether discussions had at an executive session of a school board are privileged and exempt from disclosure", it was held that "there is no statutory provision that describes the matter dealt with at such a session as confidential or which in any way restricts the participant from disclosing what took place" (Runyon v. Board of Education, West Hempstead Union Free School District No. 27, Supreme Court, Nassau County, January 29, 1987).

In short, unless a statute specifically prohibits disclosure of certain information or records, I do not believe that statements made during an executive session or information derived from an executive session could be characterized as "confidential" or that there would be a valid basis for sustaining a claim of confidentiality.

Moreover, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that deals specifically with personnel records or personnel files. The nature and content of so-called personnel files may differ from one agency to another and from one employee to another. In any case, neither the characterization of documents as personnel records nor their placement in personnel files would necessarily render those documents confidential or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law (see Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980). On the contrary, the contents of those documents are the factors used in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law.

As a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. While two of the grounds for denial may be most often relevant to an analysis of rights of access to most personnel records, again, the contents of those records are the factors used to determine the extent to which they may be available or deniable.

Section 87(2)(g) enables an agency to withhold records that:

"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:

i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;

ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;

iii. final agency policy or determinations; or

iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."

It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.

Also significant is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold records when disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. It is clear based upon judicial decisions that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. Further, with regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found in a variety of contexts that records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee's official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. When a record is accessible because disclosure would result in a permissible invasion of privacy, no consent would be needed or required from the subject of the record as a condition precedent to disclosure. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977].

In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of applicable law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to District Officials.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: Board of Education
Paul R. Lussier, Acting Superintendent
Ann Marie Mullen, Assistant Superintendent for Personnel