December 10, 2002
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 facts presented in your correspondence.
Your inquiry sent to the Department of State concerning site visits made by the Town of
Massena Planning Board has been forwarded to the Committee on Open Government. The Committee, a unit of the Department, is authorized to offer advisory opinions relating to the Open Meetings Law.
As Chair of the Board, you indicated that the purpose of the site visits is to "get a better
understanding of the site", that they are "of an educational nature" and that "no planning board business is conducted during these visits." From my perspective, based on the language of the Open Meetings Law and judicial decisions, the site visits as you described them likely fall outside the coverage of the Open Meetings Law.
By way of background, as you may be aware, 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.
There is case law, however, dealing with might have been characterized as a field trip or site
visit. In the first decision, 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. More recently,
in Riverkeeper v. The Planning Board of the Town of Somers (Supreme Court, Westchester County,
June 14, 2002), it was concluded that a site visit by a Planning Board does not constitute a meeting
subject to the Open Meetings Law so long as its purpose is not "for anything other than to 'observe and acquire information.'" The court in that decision cited and apparently relied on advisory opinion rendered by this office in which it was suggested that:
"...site visits or tours by public bodies should be conducted solely for the purpose of
observation and acquiring information, and...any discussions or deliberations regarding
such observations should occur in public during meetings conducted in accordance with the Open Meetings Law."
I hope that the foregoing will be useful to you and the Board and that I have been of assistance.