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August 20, 1993

 

 

Ms. May T. Miller
RR l Box 246
Franklin, NY 13775-9615

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. Miller:

I have received your letter of August 18 concerning "the reluctance of Delaware County's supervisors to allow the taxpayers into their committee meetings." Although the County Attorney indicated that you could not be precluded from attending those meetings, he apparently suggested that there is no requirement that the public be informed of when the meetings will be held.

You have raised a series of questions relating to the matter, and, in this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, when a committee consists solely of members of a public body, such as a county board of supervisors, I believe that the Open Meetings Law is clearly applicable. By way of background, when the Open Meetings Law went into effect in 1977, questions consistently arose with respect to the status of committees, subcommittees and similar bodies that had no capacity to take final action, but rather merely the authority to advise. Those questions arose due to the definition of "public body" as it appeared in the Open Meetings Law as it was originally enacted. Perhaps the leading case on the subject also involved a situation in which a governing body, a school board, designated committees consisting of less than a majority of the total membership of the board. In Daily Gazette Co., Inc. v. North Colonie Board of Education [67 AD 2d 803 (1978)], it was held that those advisory committees, which had no capacity to take final action, fell outside the scope of the definition of "public body".

Nevertheless, prior to its passage, the bill that became the Open Meetings Law was debated on the floor of the Assembly. During that debate, questions were raised regarding the status of "committees, subcommittees and other subgroups." In response to those questions, the sponsor stated that it was his intent that such entities be included within the scope of the definition of "public body" (see Transcript of Assembly proceedings, May 20, 1976, pp. 6268-6270).

Due to the determination rendered in Daily Gazette, supra, which was in apparent conflict with the stated intent of the sponsor of the legislation, a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law was enacted in 1979 and became effective on October 1 of that year. Among the changes was a redefinition of the term "public body". "Public body" is now defined in §102(2) to include:

"...any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body."

Although the original definition made reference to entities that "transact" public business, the current definition makes reference to entities that "conduct" public business. Moreover, the definition makes specific reference to "committees, subcommittees and similar bodies" of a public body.

In view of the amendments to the definition of "public body", I believe that any entity consisting of two or more members of a public body, such a committee of a county board of supervisors, would fall within the requirements of the Open Meetings Law, assuming that a committee discusses or conducts public business collectively as a body [see Syracuse United Neighbors v. City of Syracuse, 80 AD 2d 984 (1981)]. Further, as a general matter, I believe that a quorum consists of a majority of the total members of a body (see e.g., General Construction Law, §41). As such, in the case of a committee consisting of three, for example, a quorum would be two.

Further, when a committee is subject to the Open Meetings Law, I believe that it has the same obligations regarding notice and openness, for example, as well as the same authority to conduct executive sessions, as a governing body [see Glens Falls Newspapers, Inc. v. Solid Waste and Recycling Committee of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, Appellate Division, Third Dept., ___ AD 2d ___ (1993)].

With respect to notice, §104 of the Open Meetings Law requires that every meeting be preceded by notice given to the news media and posted. That provision states that:

"1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before each meeting.

2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be given, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto.

3. The public notice provided for by this section shall not be construed to require publication as a legal notice."

Stated differently, if a meeting is scheduled at least a week in advance, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and to the public by means of posting in one or more designated public locations, not less than seventy-two hours prior to the meeting. If a meeting is scheduled less than a week an advance, again, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and posted in the same manner as described above, "to the extent practicable", at a reasonable time prior to the meeting. Therefore, if, for example, there is a need to convene quickly, the notice requirements can generally be met by telephoning the local news media and by posting notice in one or more designated locations.

It is also noted that every meeting of a public body must be convened open to the public, 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. In addition, a procedure must be accomplished, during an open meeting, before an executive session may be held. Specifically, §105(1) of the Open Meetings Law 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 may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only..."

Further, paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may properly be considered in executive session. As such, a public body cannot conduct an executive session to discuss the subject of its choice.

Lastly, I believe that any person may use a tape recorder at an open meeting. Until 1979, there had been but one judicial determination regarding the use of tape recorders at meetings of public bodies, such as village boards of trustees. The only case on the subject was Davidson v. Common Council of the City of White Plains, 244 NYS 2d 385, which was decided in 1963. In short, the court in Davidson found that the presence of a tape recorder might detract from the deliberative process. Therefore, it was held that a public body could adopt rules generally prohibiting the use of tape recorders at open meetings. There are no judicial determinations of which I am aware that pertain to the use of video recorders or similar equipment at meetings.

Notwithstanding Davidson, however, the Committee advised that the use of tape recorders should not be prohibited in situations in which the devices are unobtrusive, for the presence of such devices would not detract from the deliberative process. In the Committee's view, a rule prohibiting the use of unobtrusive tape recording devices would not be reasonable if the presence of such devices would not detract from the deliberative process.

This contention was initially confirmed in a decision rendered in 1979. That decision arose when two individuals sought to bring their tape recorders at a meeting of a school board in Suffolk County. The school board refused permission and in fact complained to local law enforcement authorities who arrested the two individuals. In determining the issues, the court in People v. Ystueta, 418 NYS 2d 508, cited the Davidson decision, but found that the Davidson case:

"was decided in 1963, some fifteen (15) years before the legislative passage of the 'Open Meetings Law', and before the widespread use of hand held cassette recorders which can be operated by individuals without interference with public proceedings or the legislative process. While this court has had the advantage of hindsight, it would have required great foresight on the part of the court in Davidson to foresee the opening of many legislative halls and courtrooms to television cameras and the news media, in general. Much has happened over the past two decades to alter the manner in which governments and their agencies conduct their public business. The need today appears to be truth in government and the restoration of public confidence and not 'to prevent star chamber proceedings'...In the wake of Watergate and its aftermath, the prevention of star chamber proceedings does not appear to be lofty enough an ideal for a legislative body; and the legislature seems to have recognized as much when it passed the Open Meetings Law, embodying principles which in 1963 was the dream of a few, and unthinkable by the majority."

Most recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, unanimously affirmed a decision of Supreme Court, Nassau County, which annulled a resolution adopted by a board of education prohibiting the use of tape recorders at its meeting and directed the board to permit the public to tape record public meetings of the board [Mitchell v. Board of Education of Garden City School District, 113 AD 2d 924 (1985)]. In so holding, the Court stated that:

"While Education Law sec. 1709(1) authorizes a board of education to adopt by-laws and rules for its government and operations, this authority is not unbridled. Irrational and unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned. Moreover, Public Officers Law sec. 107(1) specifically provides that 'the court shall have the power, in its discretion, upon good cause shown, to declare any action *** taken in violation of [the Open Meetings Law], void in whole or in part.' Because we find that a prohibition against the use of unobtrusive recording goal of a fully informed citizenry, we accordingly affirm the judgment annulling the resolution of the respondent board of education" (id. at 925).

In view of the judicial determination rendered by the Appellate Division, I believe that any person may tape record open meetings of public bodies, so long as tape recording is carried out unobtrusively and in a manner that does not detract from the deliberative process.

Further, I believe that the comments of members of the public, as well as public officials, may be recorded. As stated by the court in Mitchell:

"[t]hose who attend such meetings, who decide to freely speak out and voice their opinions, fully realize that their comments and remarks are being made in a public forum. The argument that members of the public should be protected from the use of their words, and that they have some sort of privacy interest in their own comments, is therefore wholly specious" (id.).

In sum, I believe that any person may use a tape recorder in a non-disruptive manner at an open meeting of a public body, irrespective of whose comments might be recorded. Enclosed for your review are copies of the Open Meetings Law and "Your Right to Know", which describes the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law in detail.

As you requested and in an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings Law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to County officials.

I hope that I have been of some assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman Executive Director

RJF:jm

Enc.

cc: Richard B. Spinney, County Attorney
William Sunkenberg
Charles R. LeFever
Robert A. Homovich
Raymond M. Christensen
Velma J. Clark
Lee W. Conklin
Donald Smith
Gary L. Manning
Donald L. Kerr
John F. Thomas
Alan L. Rosa
Walter Johnson
Perry Shelton