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
I have received your letter of May 24. According to your letter, the Putnam County
Legislature consists of nine members, and it has designated several committees consisting of
three of its members. That being so, you raised the following question:
"If two (2) or more members of a Committee meet and/or take a ‘field trip' to review and discuss items under their purview, would the meeting or ‘field trip' be required to be noticed to the public as a meeting of that Committee?"
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Open Meetings Law pertains to public bodies, and §102(2) 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
The last clause of the definition refers to any "committee or subcommittee or similar body of [a] public body." Based on that language and judicial decisions, when a public body, such as a county legislature, creates or designates its own members to serve as a committee or subcommittee, the committee or subcommittee would constitute a public body subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law. Therefore, committees of the County Legislature consisting solely of its own members would have the same obligations regarding notice and openness, for example, as well as the same authority to conduct executive sessions as the governing body [see Glens Falls Newspapers, Inc. v. Solid Waste and Recycling Committee of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, 195 AD2d 898 (1993)].
With respect to notice, §104 of the Open Meetings Law 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 moredesignated 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.
Second, 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 the business of that body, 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, even though the
body was asked to attend by an official who was not a member of the body [Goodson-
Todman v. Kingston Common Council, 153 AD 2d 103 (1990)]. Therefore, even though a
gathering might be held at the request of a person who is not a member of a public body, it
would be a meeting if a quorum of a public body is present for the purpose of conducting
Lastly, although the meaning of the phrase "field trip" is not entirely clear, there is
case law dealing with might have been characterized as a field trip or site visit. In that
situation, the members of a public body were in a van, and it was held that "the Open
Meetings Law was not violated" [City of New Rochelle v. Public Service Commission, 450
AD 2d 441 (1989)]. In that case, members of the Public Service Commission toured the
proposed route of a power line in order to acquire a greater understanding of evidence
previously presented. Based upon the court's conclusion, a site visit or tour by a public body,
particularly on private property, would apparently not constitute a meeting. It has been
advised, however, that site visits or tours by public bodies should be conducted solely for the purpose of observation and acquiring information, and that any discussions or deliberations regarding such observations should occur in public during meetings conducted in accordance with the Open Meetings Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman