March 26, 1998
Mr. David Searles
7 Edwards Place
Ellenville, NY 12428
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. Searles:
I have received your letter of March 12 in which you sought an opinion concerning the application of the Open Meetings Law to a certain entity.
According to your letter, the Ulster BOCES Special Education Advisory Council meets monthly and consists of chairpersons of the Committees on Special Education in the BOCES district. You suggested that the Council was not created through any "regulatory or statutory provision" and that it appears to have no "real authority other than to eat lunch on the public tab." You have asked what "the acid test [is] for determining when the Open Meetings [Law] applies."
In this regard, 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
Based on the foregoing, a public body is, in my view, an entity required to conduct public business by means of a quorum that performs a governmental function and carries out its duties collectively, as a body. In order to constitute a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law, a majority of the total membership of a public body, a quorum, must be present for the purpose of conducting public business. I note, too, that the definition refers to committees, subcommittees and similar bodies of a public body. Based on judicial interpretations, if a committee, for example, consists solely of members of a particular public body, it, too, would constitute a public body.
For instance, in the case of a board of education consisting of seven members, four would constitute a quorum, and a gathering of that number or more for the purpose of conducting public business would be a meeting that falls within the scope of the Law. If that board designates a committee consisting of three members, the committee would itself be a public body; its quorum would be two, and a gathering of two or more, in their capacities as members of that committee, would be a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law.
Several judicial decisions indicate generally that advisory bodies other than those consisting of members of a governing body, that have no power to take final action 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 Newspaper 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 one of the decisions, Poughkeepsie Newspaper, supra, a task force was designated by then Mayor Koch consisting of representatives of New York City agencies, as well as federal and state agencies and the Westchester County Executive, to review plans and
make recommendations concerning the City's long range water supply needs.
The Court specified that the Mayor was "free to accept or reject the recommendations" of the Task Force and that "[i]t is clear that the Task Force, which was created by invitation rather than by statute or executive order, has no power, on its own, to implement any of its recommendations" (id., 67). Referring to the other cases cited above, the Court found that "[t]he unifying principle running through these decisions is that groups or entities that do not, in fact, exercise the power of the sovereign are not performing a governmental function, hence they are not 'public bod[ies] subject to the Open Meetings Law..."(id.).
In the context of your inquiry, while the Council consists of members of several public bodies, it apparently does not include a majority of any particular public body. Further, based on your remarks, the Council has no authority to take any final and binding action for or on behalf of a Committee on Special Education. If those assumptions are accurate, the Council, in my view, would not constitute a public body and, therefore, would not be obliged to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the Open Meetings Law and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman