November 6, 2000
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 October 1 and the materials attached to it. As I understand the matter, the Town of Greenburgh Planning Board usually meets in "the regular large public meeting room", but its meeting of August 29 was moved to a small conference room. You wrote that several people "had to stand or listen at a distance to the deliberations from outside the conference room" and that conditions were "uncomfortable." If the Open Meetings Law was violated, you asked whether the actions taken by the Board are invalid.
In this regard, 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 meetings of public bodies and to observe the performance of public officials 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.
The preceding paragraph appeared in an advisory opinion rendered in 1993 and was relied
upon in Crain v. Reynolds (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, August 12, 1998). In that decision, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York conducted a meeting in a room that could not accommodate those interested in attending, even though other facilities were available that would have accommodated those persons. The court in Crain granted the petitioners' motion for an order precluding the Board of Trustees from implementing a resolution adopted at the meeting at issue until certain conditions were met. In my view, based on that decision and the provisions dealing with the enforcement of the Open Meetings Law (see §107), the actions of the Planning Board remain valid until a court renders a determination to the contrary.
It is also noted that §103(b) of the Open Meetings Law states that:
"Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free physical access to the physically handicapped, as defined in subdivision five of section fifty or the public buildings law."
Based upon the foregoing, there is no obligation upon a public body to construct a new facility or to renovate an existing facility to permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. However, I believe that the Law does impose a responsibility upon a public body to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. Therefore, if, for example, the Board has the capacity to hold its meetings in a room that is accessible to handicapped persons, I believe that the meetings should be held in the room that is most likely to accommodate the needs of those people.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Planning Board
Hon. Paul Feiner
Susan A. Mancuso