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May 6, 1996

 

 

Ms. Barbara Hodge
88 Ulster Avenue
North Babylon, NY 11704

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. Hodge et al.:

I have received your letter of April 13 in which you wrote that despite your status as members of the Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corporation, you have had difficulty in relation to meetings of its Board of Directors.

In some instances, meetings are not held when they are scheduled, executive sessions "are never voted on at an open meeting", notice is not posted, meetings are held in a small room, minutes are not prepared and voting records are not maintained.

In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, the Open Meetings Law pertains 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."

While there is no judicial decision of which I am aware dealing with the status of the board of directors of an ambulance corporation, assuming that it is a volunteer organization, it would appear to be subject to the Open Meetings Law.

In general, the Open Meetings Law does not apply to meetings of the governing bodies of not-for-profit corporations. However, in construing the counterpart to the Open Meetings Law, it was found by the state's highest court that a volunteer fire company is an "agency" required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law [see Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575 (1980)]. In addition, more recently it was determined that a volunteer ambulance corporation is also covered by the Freedom of Information Law because it performs its duties solely for an ambulance district and a town [see Ryan v. Mastic Volunteer Ambulance Corp., 622 NYS 2d 795, 212 AD 2d 716 (1995)]. If the ambulance company in question is similar in nature, I believe that the board of directors would constitute a "public body" required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. Based on that assumption, I offer the following comments regarding your remarks.

First, I point out that every meeting must be convened as an open meeting, and that §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. As such, it is clear that an executive session is not separate and distinct from an open meeting, but rather that it is a part of an open meeting. Moreover, the Open Meetings 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 it 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.

Second, the Open Meetings Law requires that notice be given to the news media and posted prior to every meeting. 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. 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.

Further, notice must be "conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations." Consequently, I believe that a public body must designate, presumably by resolution, the location or locations where it will routinely post notice of meetings. To meet the requirement that notice be "conspicuously posted", notice must in my view be placed at a location that is visible to the public.

Third, §106 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to minutes of meetings and states that:

"1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.

2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.

3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."

In view of the foregoing, it is clear in my opinion that minutes of open meetings must be prepared and made available "within two weeks of the date of such meeting."

In a related vein, since the Freedom of Information Law was enacted in 1974, it has imposed what some have characterized as an "open vote" requirement. Although that statute generally pertains to existing records and ordinarily does not require that a record be created or prepared [see Freedom of Information Law, §89(3)], an exception to that rule involves voting by agency members. Specifically, §87(3) of the Freedom of Information Law has long required that:

"Each agency shall maintain:

(a) a record of the final vote of each member in every agency proceeding in which the member votes..."

Stated differently, when a final vote is taken by members of an agency, a record must be prepared that indicates the manner in which each member who voted cast his or her vote. Further, in an Appellate Division decision that was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, it was found that "[t]he use of a secret ballot for voting purposes was improper", and that the Freedom of Information Law requires "open voting and a record of the manner in which each member voted" [Smithson v. Ilion Housing Authority, 130 AD 2d 965, 967 (1987), aff'd 72 NY 2d 1034 (1988)].

To comply with the Freedom of Information Law, I believe that a record must be prepared and maintained indicating how each member cast his or her vote. Ordinarily, a record of votes of the members appear in minutes required to be prepared pursuant to §106 of the Open Meetings Law. Next, 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 those 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. In my opinion, if it is known in advance of a meeting that a larger crowd is likely to attend than the usual meeting location will accommodate, and if a larger facility is available, it would be reasonable and consistent with the intent of the Law to hold the meeting in the larger facility. Conversely, assuming the same facts, I believe that it would be unreasonable to hold a meeting in a facility that would not accommodate those interested in attending.

Lastly, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law or any other law of which I am aware that would require the preparation of an agenda prior to a meeting or its distribution at a meeting.

In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the matter, a copy of this opinion will be sent to the Ambulance Corporation.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corporation