FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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
As you are aware, I have received your letter of February 22 in which you raised several
questions relating to the conduct of meetings by a board of education.
You asked initially whether there is any requirement that there be "a public address system
so that the public is able to hear the meeting and those speaking." With respect to the capacity to hear what is said at meetings, I direct your attention to §100 of the Open Meetings Law, its legislative declaration. That provision states that:
"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 and 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."
Based upon the foregoing, while there is no specific obligation to provide a public address system, it is clear in my view that public bodies must conduct meetings in a manner that guarantees the public the ability to "be fully aware of" and "listen to" the deliberative process. Further, I believe that every statute, including the Open Meetings Law, must be implemented in a manner that gives effect to its intent. In short, a board of education must in my view situate itself and conduct its meetings in a manner in which those in attendance can observe and hear the proceedings. To do otherwise would in my opinion be unreasonable and fail to comply with a basis requirement of the Open Meetings Law.
Second, you questioned whether it is "illegal if a board goes into executive session under the
guise of ‘personnel matters' and comes back out and makes a major decision without further public input." In this regard, 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. While one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters, from my perspective, 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.
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 has 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; 207AD 2d 55, 58 (1994)]
Next, you asked whether a board must have "a policy that limits public discussion (i.e., 3
minutes per person) or can the public speak until the discussion is finished." While 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 public participation. Consequently, by means of example, 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. On the other hand, 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 reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.
Although public bodies have the right to adopt rules to govern their own proceedings (see
e.g., Education Law, §1709), 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 rule 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 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 note that there are federal court decisions indicating that if commentary is permitted within
a certain subject area, negative commentary in the same area cannot be prohibited. It has been held by the United States Supreme Court that a school board meeting in which the public may speak is a "limited" public forum, and that limited public fora involve "public property which the State has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity" [Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators' Association, 460 US 37, 103. S.Ct. 954 (1939); also see Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School District, 936 F. Supp. 719 (1996)]. In Baca, a federal court invalidated a bylaw that "allows expression of two points of view (laudatory and neutral) while prohibiting a different point of view (negatively critical) on a particular subject matter (District employees' conduct or performance)" (id., 730). That prohibition "engenders discussion artificially geared toward praising (and maintaining) the status quo, thereby foreclosing meaningful public dialogue and ultimately,
dynamic political change" [Leventhal v. Vista Unified School District, 973 F.Supp. 951, 960 (1997)]. In a decision rendered by the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York (1997 WL588876 E.D.N.Y.), Schuloff, v. Murphy, it was stated that:
"In a traditional public forum, like a street or park, the government may enforce a content-based exclusion only if it is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end. Perry Educ. Ass'n., 460 U.S. at 45. A designated or ‘limited' public forum is public property ‘that the state has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity.' Id. So long as the government retains the facility open for speech, it is bound by the same standards that apply to a traditional public forum. Thus, any content-based prohibition must be narrowly drawn to effectuate a compelling state interest. Id. at 46."
The court in Schuloff determined that a "compelling state interest" involved the ability to
protect students' privacy in an effort to comply with the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act, and that expressions of opinions concerning "the shortcomings" of a law school professor could not be restrained.
In short, I do not believe that the board is required to permit the public to speak at its
meetings. However, if it chooses to do so, it must do so, in my opinion, in a manner that is
reasonable and generally consistent with the preceding commentary.
Lastly, you asked whether "legal counsel [can] advise BOE members NOT to speak at an
open meeting" (emphasis yours). There is nothing that would prohibit counsel from offering advice to board members. Nevertheless, members of boards of education are, in my view, elected to express points of view, to exchange ideas and to engage in a deliberative process. To avoid speaking at open meetings would, from my perspective, conflict with basic duties of board members.
I hope that I have been of assistance.