Mrs. Antonia Rowcliffe
3258 East Avenue
Caledonia, NY 14423
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. Rowcliffe:
As you may be aware, a variety of materials have been forwarded to the Committee on Open Government by the State Education Department concerning your complaint sent to the New York State Commission of Investigation. The Committee, a unit of the Department of State, is authorized to offer advisory opinions pertaining to the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws.
By way of background, in your capacity as a member of the Caledonia-Mumford Central School District Board of Education, you indicated in a letter to the Commission "that four, sometimes five, Board members have had secret, unannounced meetings without minutes being taken" and added that "two Board members...are intentionally not notified of the meetings to obstruct [y]our participation." You also wrote that members of the Board have "admitted to these illegal meetings." It is my understanding, based on the materials, that the Board consists of seven members.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
It is noted at the outset 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.
However, 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 duty. 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 none of the persons or officers disqualified from acting."
Based upon the language quoted above, a public body, such as a board of education, cannot carry out its 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, five of seven members of a public body meet without informing the other two, even though the five 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. If challenged, I believe that action purportedly taken by a majority of a public body that met without giving reasonable notice to all of the members would be found to be a nullity, i.e., that no action was validly or effectively taken.
A second issue involves your inability as a member of the Board, and also as a member of the public, to gain access to records reflective of District expenditures, particularly those pertaining to payments made to attorneys retained by the District.
Here I refer to the Freedom of Information Law. As a general matter, that statute is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. Contracts, bills, vouchers and similar records reflective of payments by an agency are typically available, for none of the grounds for denial could appropriately be asserted.
With specific respect to payments to a law firm, the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law indicates that the information sought must be disclosed. A recent decision involved a request for "the amount of money paid in 1994" to a particular law firm "for their legal service in representing the County in its landfill expansion suit", as well as "copies of invoices, bills, vouchers submitted to the county from the law firm justifying and itemizing the expenses for 1994" (Orange County Publications v. County of Orange, Supreme Court, Orange County, June 15, 1995). Although monthly bills indicating amounts charged by the firm were disclosed, the agency redacted "'the daily descriptions of the specific tasks' (the description material) 'including descriptions of issues researched, meetings and conversations between attorney and client'." The County offered several rationales for the redactions; nevertheless, the court rejected all of them, in some instances fully, in others in part.
The first contention was that the descriptive material is specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law and the assertion of the attorney-client privilege pursuant to §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR). The court found that the mere communication between the law firm and the County as its client does not necessarily involve a privileged communication; rather, the court stressed that it is the content of the communications that determine the extent to which the privilege applies. Further, the court distinguished between actual communications between attorney and client and descriptions of the legal services provided, stating that:
"Only if such descriptions can be demonstrated to rise to the level of protected communications, can respondent's position be sustained.
"In this regard, the Court must make its determination based upon the established principal that not all communications between attorney and client are privileged. Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, supra, 51 N.Y.2d 68, 69. In particular, 'fee arrangements between attorney and client do not ordinarily constitute a confidential communication and, thus, are not privileged in the usual case' (Ibid.). Indeed, as the Court determined in Matter of Priest v. Hennessy, supra,
[a] communication concerning the fee to be paid has no direct relevance to the legal advice to be given. It is a collateral matter which, unlike communications which relate to the subject matter of the attorney's professional employment is not privileged. Id. at 69.
"Consequently, while billing statements which 'are detailed in showing services, conversations, and conferences between counsel and others' are protected by the attorney-client privilege (Licensing Corporation of America v. National Hockey League Players Association, 135 Misc.2d 126, 127-128 [Sup. Ct. N.Y.Co. 1992]; see, De La Roche v. De Law Roche, 209 A.D.2d 157, 158-159 [1st Dept. 1994]), no such privilege attaches to fee statements which do not provide 'detailed accounts' of the legal services provided by counsel..."
It was also contended that the records could be withheld on the ground that they constituted attorney work product or material prepared for litigation that are exempted from disclosure by statute [see CPLR, §3101(c) and (d)]. In dealing with that claim, it was stated by the court that:
"...in order to uphold respondent's denial of the FOIL request, the Court would be compelled to conclude that the descriptive material, set forth in the law firm's monthly bills, is uniquely the product of the professional skills of respondent's outside counsel. The Court fails to see how the preparation and submission of a bill for fees due and owing, not at all dependent on legal expertise, education or training, can be 'attribute[d]...to the unique skills of an attorney' (Brandman v. Cross & Brown Co., 125 Misc.2d 185, 188 [Sup. Ct. Kings Ct. 1984]). Therefore, the Court concludes that the attorney work product privilege does not serve as an absolute bar to disclosure of the descriptive material. (See, id.).
"However, the Court is aware that, depending upon how much information is set forth in the descriptive material, a limited portion of that information may be protected from disclosure, either under the work product privilege, or the privilege for materials prepared for litigation, as codified in CPLR 3101(d)...
"While the Court has not been presented with any of the billing records sought, the Court understands that they may contain specific references to: legal issues researched, which bears upon the law firm's theories of the landfill action; conferences with witnesses not yet identified and interviewed by respondent's adversary in that lawsuit; and other legal services which were provided as part of counsel's representation of respondent in that ongoing legal action...Certainly, any such references to interviews, conversations or correspondence with particular individuals, prospective pleadings or motions, legal theories, or similar matters, may be protected either as work product or material prepared for litigation, or both" (emphasis added by the court).
Finally, it was contended that the records consisted of intra-agency materials that could be withheld under §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision permits an agency to withhold records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.
The court found that much of the information would likely consist of factual information available under §87(2)(g)(i) and stated that:
"...the Court concludes that respondent has failed to establish that petitioner should be denied access to the descriptive material as a whole. While it is possible that some of the descriptive material may fall within the exempted category of expressions of opinion, respondent has failed to identify with any particularity those portions which are not subject to disclosure under Public Officers Law §87(2)(g). See, Matter of Dunlea v. Goldmark, supra, 54 A.D.2d 449. Certainly, any information which merely reports an event or factual occurrence, such as a conference, telephone call, research, court appearance, or similar description of legal work, and which does not disclose opinions, recommendations or statements of legal strategy will not be barred from disclosure under this exemption. See, Ingram v. Axelrod, supra."
In short, although it was found that some aspects of the records in question might properly be withheld based on their specific contents, a blanket denial of access was clearly inconsistent with law, and substantial portions of the records were found to be accessible. As I understand your requests, they are not as detailed as the request at issue in Orange County Publications. It appears that your requests involve amounts expended. In my view, those aspects of the records would clearly be available.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of open government laws, a copy of this opinion will be sent to the Board of Education. Copies will also be forwarded to the State Education Department and the Commission of Investigation.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education
Luis E. Pacheco