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April 8, 1996

 

 

Ms. Elizabeth A. Bonora
Editor
Shelter Island Reporter, Inc.
P.O. Drawer 3020
Shelter Island Heights, NY 11965

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. Bonora:

I have received your letter of April 1, as well as the news articles and judicial decision attached to it. You have sought an advisory opinion concerning "possible violations of the Open Meetings Law.

The initial issue pertains to references made during an open meeting to a closed meeting held prior to a hearing by the Village of Dering Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals. Those who attended the closed meeting indicated that the Board "had spoken with counsel" concerning an application for a variance, and when you made inquiry regarding the gathering, you were informed that it was an "executive session." Following our discussion of the matter and "because it appears that several topics discussed during that meeting were beyond that which would require confidential advice from counsel", it is your view that "the meeting was held in violation of the Open Meetings Law, since it did not fall under the criteria for an executive session."

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, it is emphasized at the outset that 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 public body gathers to discuss public business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. It is also noted that it has been held that a gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of holding a "planned informal conference" involving a matter of public business constituted a meeting that fell within the scope of the Open Meetings Law [Goodson-Todman v. Kingston Common Council, 153 AD 2d 103 (1990)].

Second, there are two vehicles that may authorize a public body to 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, and the Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an 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 ensuing 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 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 to the matter 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 invoked, 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 long been held that a municipal board may establish a privileged relationship with its attorney [People 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 his client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of securing primarily either (i) an opinion on 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 seeks legal advice from its attorney and the attorney renders legal advice, I believe that the attorney-client privilege may validly be asserted and that communications made within the scope of the privilege would be outside the coverage of the Open Meetings Law. Therefore, even though there may be no basis for conducting an executive session pursuant to §105 of the Open Meetings Law, a private discussion might validly be held based on the proper assertion of the attorney-client privilege pursuant to §108, and legal advice may be requested even though litigation or possible litigation is not an issue. In that case, while the litigation exception for entry into executive session would not apply, there may be a proper assertion of the attorney-client privilege.

I note that the mere presence of an attorney does not signify the existence of an attorney-client relationship; in order to assert the attorney-client privilege, the attorney must in my view be providing services in which the expertise of an attorney is needed and sought. Further, often at some point in a discussion, the attorney stops giving legal advice and a public body may begin discussing or deliberating independent of the attorney. When that point is reached, I believe that the attorney-client privilege has ended and that the body should return to an open meeting.

Although it is not my intent to be overly technical, as suggested earlier, the procedural methods of entering into an executive session and asserting the attorney-client privilege differ. In the case of the former, the Open Meetings Law applies, and the characterization of a closed meeting as an "executive session" would in my view lead one to conclude that such a session should have been conducted during an open meeting and in accordance with the procedural requirements imposed by §105(1) of the Open Meetings Law.

Next, you referred to a meeting during which you indicated that you wanted to use your portable cassette tape recorder. Both the Mayor and the Village Attorney informed you that you could not do so. In my opinion, which is based on judicial decisions, particularly a unanimous decision rendered by the Second Department, Appellate Division, which includes Suffolk County within its jurisdiction, you could not validly have been prohibited from tape recording the meeting.

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 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 any 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.

Lastly, you referred to a meeting attended by four members of the Board of Trustees at the home of a Trustee "for the purpose of hearing a report from a tax consultant hired by the village." You wrote that there was no notice given prior to the meeting, and that a decision appears to have been reached.

For reasons discussed earlier, I believe that the meeting in question clearly fell within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law, even though it might have been informal and there may have been no intent to take action. Further, the Law requires that notice be given prior to every meeting of a public body. Specifically, §104 of that statute provides 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.

Lastly, although the Open Meetings Law does not specify where meetings must be held, §103(a) of the Law states in part that "Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public..." Further, the intent of the Open Meetings Law is clearly stated in §100 as follows:

"It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of an able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it."

As such, the Open Meetings Law confers a right upon the public to attend and listen to the deliberations of public bodies and to observe the performance of public officials who serve on such bodies.

From my perspective, every provision of law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. It is my view that it is inappropriate and inconsistent with the Open Meetings Law to hold a meeting in a private home. Again, any member of the public has the right to attend meetings of public bodies, and in my opinion, the location of the meeting in this instance represented an impediment to free access by the public. In addition, §103(b) of the Open Meetings Law states that:

"Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free physical access to the physically handicapped, as defined in subdivision five of section fifty or the public buildings law."

Based upon the foregoing, there is no obligation upon a public body to construct a new facility or to renovate an existing facility to permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. However, I believe that the Law does impose a responsibility upon a public body to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons.

In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings Law, a copies of this opinion will be forwarded to the Board of Trustees and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Board of Trustees
Zoning Board of Appeals