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  February 23, 1995

 

 

Ms. Jo Ann Katzban
Associate Director
Permanent Citizens Advisory
  Committee to the MTA
347 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10017

The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.

Dear Ms. Katzban:

I have received your letter of January 23 in which you requested an advisory opinion "on the ability of committees or groups of MTA board members to meet in private for the purpose of briefings on topics concerning the business of the agency." You added that it "is apparently the belief of various MTA board members and committee chairpersons that if a quorum of the full MTA board is not present, the various committees or subcommittees are free to conduct private meetings..." (emphasis yours).

In this regard, when a committee consists solely of members of a public body, such as the MTA Board, 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 Those questions arose due to the definition of "public body" as it appeared in the Open Meetings Law as it was originally enacted.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 as a committee or subcommittee consisting of members of the MTA Board, 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 membership of a body (see e.g., General Construction Law, §41). Therefore, if, for example, the MTA Board consists of nine, its quorum would be five; in the case of a committee consisting of three, a quorum would be two.

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, 195 AD 2d 898 (1993)].

It is also noted that the Open Meetings Law applies to any gathering of a quorum of a public body held to conduct public business, or to be "briefed", even when the gathering is called by a person other than a member of the public body. The definition of "meeting" [see Open Meetings Law, §102(1)] 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, if a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, in their capacities as members of that body, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. It has been held that a gathering of a quorum of a city council for the purpose of holding a "briefing" or "planned informal conference" involving a matter of public business constituted a meeting that fell within the scope of the Open Meetings Law, even though the Council was asked to attend by a city official who was not a member of the city council [Goodson-Todman v. Kingston Common Council, 153 AD 2d 103 (1990)]. Therefore, even though a meeting of a committee might be held at the request of a non-member, I believe that it would nonetheless fall within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law, assuming that a quorum of the committee is present to discuss public business.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Board of Directors, MTA