Ms. Virginia Stujenske
92 Stewart Street
Floral Park, NY 11001
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, unless otherwise indicated.
Dear Ms. Stujenske:
As you are aware, I have received your letter of November 16. You have raised a series of issues in relation to the "Shared Decision Making Meetings" conducted in the Floral Park Bellerose Union Free School District. As you requested, enclosed are copies of the Open Meetings Law and an explanatory brochure that may be useful to you. I note that paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1) of the Open Meetings Law specify and limit the subjects that may properly be considered in executive session.
With regard to your questions, I offer the following comments.
First, I believe that the "shared decision-making" committees created pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Commissioner of Education are required to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
By way of background, §100.11(b) of the regulations states in relevant part that:
"By February 1, 1994, each public school district board of education and each board of cooperative educational services (BOCES) shall develop and adopt a district plan for the participation by teachers and parents with administrators and school board members in school-based planning and shared decisionmaking. Such district plan shall be developed in collaboration with a committee composed of the superintendent of schools, administrators selected by the district's administrative bargaining organization(s), teachers selected by the teachers' collective bargaining organization(s), and parents (not employed by the district or a collective bargaining organization representing teachers or administrators in the district) selected by their peers in the manner prescribed by the board of education or BOCES, provided that those portions of the district plan that provide for participation of teachers or administrators in school-based planning and shared decisionmaking may be developed through collective negotiations between the board of education or BOCES and local collective bargaining organizations representing administrators and teachers."
Section 100.11(d) provides in part that:
"The district's plan shall be adopted by the board of education or BOCES at a public meeting after consultation with and full participation by the designated representatives of the administrators, teachers, and parents, and after seeking endorsement of the plan by such designated representatives."
"Each board of education or BOCES shall submit its district plan to the commissioner for approval within 30 days of adoption of the plan. The commissioner shall approve such district plan upon a finding that it complies with the requirements of this section..."
Additionally, §100.11(e)(1) states that:
"In the event that the board of education or BOCES fails to provide for consultation with, and full participation of, all parties in the development of the plan as required by subdivisions (b) and (d) of this section, the aggrieved party or parties may commence an appeal to the commissioner pursuant to section 310 of the Education Law. Such an appeal may be instituted prior to final adoption of the district plan and shall be instituted no later that 30 days after final adoption of the district plan by the board of education or BOCES."
In this regard, the Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of public bodies, and §102(2) of that statute defines the phrase "public body" to mean:
"...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."
Recent decisions indicate generally that advisory bodies having no power to take final action, other than committees consisting solely of members of public bodies, fall outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. As stated in those decisions: "it has long been held that the mere giving of advice, even about governmental matters is not itself a governmental function" [Goodson-Todman Enterprises, Ltd. v. Town Board of Milan, 542 NYS 2d 373, 374, 151 AD 2d 642 (1989); Poughkeepsie Newspapers v. Mayor's Intergovernmental Task Force, 145 AD 2d 65, 67 (1989); see also New York Public Interest Research Group v. Governor's Advisory Commission, 507 NYS 2d 798, aff'd with no opinion, 135 AD 2d 1149, motion for leave to appeal denied, 71 NY 2d 964 (1988)].
In this instance, however, although the committees in question may or may not have the ability to make determinations, according to the Commissioner's regulations, they perform a necessary and integral function in the development of shared decision making plans. As stated earlier, the regulations specify that a district plan "shall be developed in collaboration with a committee." As such, a committee must, by law, be involved in the development of a plan. The regulations also indicate that a plan may be adopted by a board of education or BOCES only "after consultation with and full participation by" a committee, and that the Commissioner may approve a plan only after having found that it "complies with the requirements of this section", i.e., when it is found that a committee was involved in the development of a plan. Further, an appeal may be made to the Commissioner if a board has failed to permit "full participation" of a committee.
In the decisions cited earlier, none of the entities were designated by law to carry out a particular duty and all had purely advisory functions. More analogous to the status of shared decision-making committees in my view is the decision rendered in MFY Legal Services v. Toia [402 NYS 2d 510 (1977)]. That case involved an advisory body created by statute to advise the Commissioner of the State Department of Social Services. In MFY, it was found that "[a]lthough the duty of the committee is only to give advice which may be disregarded by the Commissioner, the Commissioner may, in some instances, be prohibited from acting before he receives that advice" (id. 511) and that, "[t]herefore, the giving of advice by the Committee either on their own volition or at the request of the Commissioner is a necessary governmental function for the proper actions of the Social Services Department" (id. 511-512).
Again, according to the Commissioner's regulations, which have the force and effect of law, a plan cannot be adopted absent "collaboration" and participation by the committees that are the subject of your inquiry. Since they carry out necessary functions in the development of shared decision making plans, I believe that they perform a governmental function and, therefore, are public bodies subject to the Open Meetings Law.
In my opinion, the same conclusion can be reached by viewing the definition of "public body" in terms of its components. A committee is an entity consisting of more than two members; it is required in my view to conduct its business subject to quorum requirements (see General Construction Law, §41); and, based upon the preceding commentary, a committee conducts public business and performs a governmental function for a public corporation, such as a school district or a BOCES.
While the Commissioner's regulations make reference to "school-based" committees, there is no statement concerning their specific role, function or authority. It is my understanding, based upon a discussion with a representative of the State Education Department, that school-based committees carry out their duties in accordance with the plans adopted individually by boards of education in each school district, and that those plans are intended to provide the committees in question with a role in the decision making process. When, for example, a plan provides decision making authority to school-based committees within a district, those committees, in my opinion, would clearly constitute public bodies required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. Similarly, when a school-based committee performs a function analogous to that of the shared decision-making committee, i.e., where the school-based committee has the authority to recommend, and the decision maker or decision making body must consider its recommendations as a condition precedent to taking action, I believe that the committee would be a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law, even when the recommendations need not be followed.
In sum, due to the necessary functions that the committees in question perform pursuant to the Commissioner's regulations and the plans adopted in accordance with those regulations, I believe that they constitute "public bodies" subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law.
Second, §104 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to notice of meetings and 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.
Third, perhaps the most frequently cited ground for entry into executive session is the so-called "personnel" exception. Although it is used often, the word "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. While one of the grounds for entry into executive session relates to personnel matters, the language of that provision is precise. In its original form, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."
Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.
To attempt to clarify the Law, the Committee recommended a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law, several of which became effective on October 1, 1979. The recommendation made by the Committee regarding §105(1)(f) was enacted and now states that a public body may enter into 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..." (emphasis added).
Based on the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), I believe that a discussion under that provision may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when one or more of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) are considered.
Due to the presence of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), it has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or as a "specific personnel matter" is inadequate, and that the motion should be based upon the specific language of §105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
It is noted that the Appellate Division, Second Department, recently confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving employment, the Court stated that:
"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 ), and it is apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).
"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue', does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]). Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].
Lastly, it is noted that neither the Open Meetings Law nor any other statute of which I am aware deals with the use of audio or video recording devices at open meetings of public bodies. There are, however, several judicial decisions concerning the use of those devices at open meetings. From my perspective, the decisions consistently apply certain principles. One is that a public body has the ability to adopt reasonable rules concerning its proceedings. The other involves whether the use of the equipment would be disruptive.
By way of background, until 1978, there had been but one judicial determination regarding the use of the tape recorders at meetings of public bodies, such as town boards. 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.
Notwithstanding Davidson, 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."
More 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 meetings 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 judgement annulling the resolution of the respondent board of education" (id. at 925).
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 view of the judicial determination rendered by the Appellate Division, I believe that a member of the public 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.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman Executive Director
cc: Board of Education
Superintendent of Schools