April 25, 2001
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence, unless otherwise indicated.
As you are aware, I have received your letter of March 13 and the materials attached to it.
You have sought an opinion concerning what you characterized as " an illegal meeting" convened by the Kinderhook Town Supervisor, Doug McGivney.
A review of the correspondence relating to the matter indicates that the Supervisor called a
meeting to discuss the possibility of widening State Farm Road. Notice of the gathering was posted, a member of the news media was present, and four of the five members of the Town Board attended. Nevertheless, you wrote that only three were given prior notice. Based on several conversations, including a description of the gathering offered by the Supervisor, it is my understanding that Board members sat in the audience among others who attended and that the four members who were present did not function collectively as a Board. If that is so, it does not appear that the Open Meetings Law would have been applicable.In this regard, §102(1) of the Open Meetings Law defines the term "meeting" to mean "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business". It is emphasized that the definition of "meeting" 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, 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 the Board gathers to discuss Town business, collectively as a body and in their capacities as Board members, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
With respect to chance meetings, it was found that:
"We agree that not every assembling of the members of a public body
was intended to be included within the definition. Clearly casual
encounters by members do not fall within the open meetings statutes.
But an informal 'conference' or 'agenda session' does, for it permits
'the crystallization of secret decisions to point just short of ceremonial acceptance'" (id. at 416).
In view of the foregoing, if members of a public body meet by chance or at a social gathering, for example, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would apply, for there would be no intent to conduct public business, collectively, as a body. Further, if less than a quorum is present, the Open Meetings Law would not, in my opinion, be applicable.
I point out that questions similar to yours have arisen at workshops and seminars during
which I have spoken and which were attended by many, including perhaps a majority of the
membership of several public bodies. Some of those persons have asked whether their presence at those gatherings fell within the scope of the Open Meetings Law. In brief, I have responded that, since the members of those entities did not attend for the purpose of conducting public business as a body, the Open Meetings Law, in my opinion, did not apply. It would appear that the same conclusion could be reached with respect to the matter that you described.
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
cc: Hon. Doug McGivney