Mr. Rudolph Meola
Town Board Member
Town of Hague - Town Hall
Hague, NY 12836
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 Mr. Meola:
I have received your letter of January 26 in which you requested advice concerning the Open Meetings Law.
In your capacity as a member of the Hague Town Board, you wrote that:
"It is [your] understanding that the Open Meeting Law requires that all meetings of a public body be open to the public. 'Executive Sessions', 'workshops' can only be held after an open meeting is convened, a motion is made to go to executive session, the area to be discussed is identified and the motion is adopted by the majority vote in the open meeting.
"It is the practice of the Town Supervisor to call 'executive sessions' at will with no public notice given, nor open session held first. Also meetings have been held to discuss public business where only certain Town Board Members are asked to attend while others are excluded."
Attached to your correspondence is an example of a "workshop", a letter from the Supervisor confirming that a workshop would be held with an attorney. The Supervisor wrote that it would be "a confidential meeting between client and lawyer regarding pending litigation".
Based on the foregoing, I offer the following comments.
First, in my view, there is no legal distinction between a "workshop and a meeting". By way of background, 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, if a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law that must be preceded by notice given in accordance with §104 of the Law.
Second, in order to constitute a valid meeting, I believe that all of the members of a public body must be given reasonable notice of a meeting. Relevant in my view is §41 of the General Construction Law which provides guidance concerning quorum and voting requirements. The cited provision states that:
"Whenever three of more public officers are given any power or authority, or three or more persons are charged with any public duty to be performed or exercised by them jointly or as a board or similar body, a majority of the whole number of such persons or officers, at a meeting duly held at a time fixed by law, or by any by-law duly adopted by such board of body, or at any duly adjourned meeting of such meeting, or at any meeting duly held upon reasonable notice to all of them, shall constitute a quorum and not less than a majority of the whole number may perform and exercise such power, authority or dy. For the purpose of this provision the words 'whole number' shall be construed to mean the total number which the board, commission, body or other group of persons or officers would have were there no vacancies and were one of the persons or officers disqualified from acting."
Based upon the language quoted above, a public body, such as a town board, cannot carry out is powers or duties except by means of an affirmative vote of a majority of its total membership taken at a meeting duly held upon reasonable notice to all of the members. Therefore, if, for example, three of five members of a public body meet without informing the other two, even though the three represent a majority, I do not believe that they could vote or act as or on behalf of the body as a whole; unless all of the members of the body are given reasonable notice of a meeting, the body in my opinion is incapable of performing or exercising its power, authority or duty.
Third, there are two vehicles under which a public body may discuss public business in private. One involves entry into an executive session. Section 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. Moreover, the Open Meetings Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into executive session. 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 such, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or subjects to be discussed and the motion must be carried by majority vote of a public body's membership before such a session may validly be held. The ensuring provisions of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may appropriately be considered during an executive session. Therefore, a public body may not conduct an executive session separate from a meeting or to discuss the subject of its choice.
The other vehicle for excluding the public from a meeting involves "exemptions." Section 108 of the Open Meetings Law contains three exemptions. When an exemption applies, the Open Meetings Law does not, and the requirements that would operate with respect to executive sessions are not in effect. Stated differently, to discuss a matter exempted from the Open Meetings Law, a public body need not follow the procedure imposed by §105(1) that relates to entry into an executive session. Further, although executive sessions may be held only for particular purposes, there is no such limitation that relates to matters that are exempt from the coverage of the Open Meetings Law.
Relevant under the circumstances is §108(3), which exempts from the Open Meetings Law:
"...any matter made confidential by federal or state law."
When an attorney-client relationship has been involved, it is considered confidential under §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Therefore, if an attorney and client establish a privileged relationship, the communications made pursuant to that relationship would in my view be confidential under state law and, therefore, exempt from the Open Meetings Law.
In terms of background, it has been long held that a municipal board may establish a privileged relationship with its attorney [Perole ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, 9 NYS 243 (1889); Pennock v. Lane, 231 NYS 2d 897, 898 (1962)]. However, such a relationship is in my opinion operable only when a municipal board or official seeks the legal advice of an attorney acting in his or her capacity as an attorney, and where there is no waiver of the privilege by the client. In a judicial determination that described the parameters of the attorney-client relationship and the conditions precedent to its initiation, it was held that:
"In general, 'the privilege applies only if (1) the asserted holder of the privilege is or sought to become a client; (2) the person to whom the communication was made (a) is a member of the bar of a court, or his subordinate and (b) in connection with this communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed (a) by this client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of law or (ii) legal services (iii) assistance in some legal proceedings, and not (d) for the purpose of committing a crime or tort; and (4) the privilege has been (a) claimed and (b) not waived by the client'" [People v. Belge, 59 AD 2d 307, 399, NYS 2d 539, 540 (1977)].
Insofar as the Board sought legal advice from its attorney and the attorney was rendering legal advice, I believe that the attorney-client privilege could validly have been asserted and that communications made within the scope of the privilege would have been outside the coverage of the Open Meetings Law. Therefore, a private discussion might validly have been held based on the proper assertion of the attorney-client privilege pursuant to §108.
I hope that the foregoing serves to enhance your understanding of the matter and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Town Board