October 28, 1997
Mr. Joseph Salvia
Rhinecliff Teachers Association
Rhinecliff Union Free School District
Rhinecliff, NY 12574
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. Salvia:
As you are aware, I have received your correspondence of September 22 in which you raised several issues pertaining to the implementation of the Open Meetings Law by the Board of Education of the Rhinecliff Union Free School District. Based on a review of the materials, I offer the following comments.
The initial issue involves notice requirements. In this regard, the Open Meetings Law requires that notice be posted and given to the news media prior to every meeting of a public body, such as a board of education. 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. Although the Open Meetings Law does not make reference to "special" or "emergency" meetings, if, for example, there is a need to convene quickly, the notice requirements can generally be met by telephoning or faxing notice of the time and place of a meeting to the local news media and by posting notice in one or more designated locations.
Further, the judicial interpretation of the Open Meetings Law suggests that the propriety of scheduling a meeting less than a week in advance is dependent upon the actual need to do so. As stated in Previdi v. Hirsch:
"Whether abbreviated notice is 'practicable' or 'reasonable' in a given case depends on the necessity for same. Here, respondents virtually concede a lack of urgency: They deny petitioner's characterization of the session as an 'emergency' and maintain nothing of substance was transacted at the meeting except to discuss the status of litigation and to authorize, pro forma, their insurance carrier's involvement in negotiations. It is manifest then that the executive session could easily have been scheduled for another date with only minimum delay. In that event respondents could even have provided the more extensive notice required by POL §104(1). Only respondent's choice in scheduling prevented this result.
"Moreover, given the short notice provided by respondents, it should have been apparent that the posting of a single notice in the School District offices would hardly serve to apprise the public that an executive session was being called...
"In White v. Battaglia, 79 A.D. 2d 880, 881, 434 N.Y.S.ed 637, lv. to app. den. 53 N.Y.2d 603, 439 N.Y.S.2d 1027, 421 N.E.2d 854, the Court condemned an almost identical method of notice as one at bar:
"Fay Powell, then president of the board, began contacting board members at 4:00 p.m. on June 27 to ask them to attend a meeting at 7:30 that evening at the central office, which was not the usual meeting date or place. The only notice given to the public was one typewritten announcement posted on the central office bulletin board...Special Term could find on this record that appellants violated the...Public Officers Law...in that notice was not given 'to the extent practicable, to the news media' nor was it 'conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations' at a reasonable time 'prior thereto' (emphasis added)" [524 NYS 2d 643, 645 (1988)].
Based upon the foregoing, absent an emergency or urgency, the Court in Previdi suggested that it would be unreasonable to conduct meetings on short notice, unless there is some necessity to do so.
A second issue involves executive sessions and their length. From my perspective, executive sessions may be brief or lengthy, depending on the nature, number and complexity of the matters under consideration. The fact that an executive session may be lengthy in my view is not necessarily of an indication of a failure to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
As a general matter, the Open Meetings Law is based upon a presumption of openness. Stated differently, meetings of public bodies must be conducted open to the public, unless there is a basis for entry into executive session. Moreover, 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 total 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.
Although it is used frequently, the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. It is true that one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters. From my perspective, however, the term is overused and is frequently cited in a manner that is misleading or causes unnecessary confusion. To be sure, some issues involving "personnel" may be properly considered in an executive session; others, in my view, cannot. Further, certain matters that have nothing to do with personnel may be discussed in private under the provision that is ordinarily cited to discuss personnel.
The language of the so-called "personnel" exception, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law, is limited and precise. In terms of legislative history, as originally enacted, the provision in question 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 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).
Due to the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), I believe that a discussion of "personnel" may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when at least one of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) is considered.
When a discussion concerns matters of policy, such as the manner in which public money will be expended or allocated, the functions of a department or perhaps the creation or elimination of positions, I do not believe that §105(1)(f) could be asserted, even though the discussion may relate to "personnel". For example, if a discussion involves staff reductions or layoffs due to budgetary concerns, the issue in my view would involve matters of policy. Similarly, if a discussion of possible layoff relates to positions and whether those positions should be retained or abolished, the discussion would involve the means by which public monies would be allocated. In none of the instances described would the focus involve a "particular person" and how well or poorly an individual has performed his or her duties. One of the items noted on the agenda for consideration in executive session involved the "status of vacant Senior Attendance Officer Position." If the discussion pertained to the position, not any particular person who might fill it, it is doubtful in my view that the matter should have been considered in private.
To reiterate, in order to enter into an executive session pursuant to §105(1)(f), I believe that the discussion must focus on a particular person (or persons) in relation to a topic listed in that provision. As stated judicially, "it would seem that under the statute matters related to personnel generally or to personnel policy should be discussed in public for such matters do not deal with any particular person" (Doolittle v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Chemung County, October 20, 1981).
It has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or "specific personnel matters" 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 the establishment and functions of a position, 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, 620 NY 2d 573, 575; 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].
Lastly, you questioned the Board's policy concerning public comment at its meetings. In this regard, although the Open Meetings Law clearly provides the public with the right "to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy" (see Open Meetings Law, §100), the Law is silent with respect to the issue of public participation. Consequently, if a public body does not want to answer questions or permit the public to speak or otherwise participate at its meetings, I do not believe that it would be obliged to do so. Nevertheless, a public body may choose to answer questions and permit public participation, and many do so. When a public body does permit the public to speak, I believe that it should do so based upon rules that treat members of the public equally.
While public bodies have the right to adopt rules to govern their own proceedings [see e.g., Education Law, §1709(1)], the courts have found in a variety of contexts that such rules must be reasonable. For example, although a board of education may "adopt by laws and rules for its government and operations", in a case in which a board's rules prohibited the use of tape recorders at its meetings, the Appellate Division found that the rule was unreasonable, stating that the authority to adopt rules "is not unbridled" and that "unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned" [see Mitchell v. Garden City Union Free School District, 113 AD 2d 924, 925 (1985)]. Similarly, if by operation of rule, a public body chose to permit certain citizens to address it for ten minutes while permitting others to address it for three, or not at all, such a rule, in my view, would be unreasonable.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Brother David Fontaine, C.S.P.
Dr. Donald Rosen