September 10, 2003
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.
I have received your letter and the materials attached to it. You have raised a variety of issues relating to proceedings conducted by the Town of Altamont Board of Assessment Review. In consideration of your remarks, I offer the following comments.
First, although a courtroom located on the ground floor of the Town Hall was available for use, the Board, according to your letter, chose to conduct its proceedings "on the second floor of the building accessible only by 2 flights of stairs..."
While 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. Pertinent to the issue is §103(b) of the Open Meetings Law which 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."
The same direction appears in §74-a of the Public Officers Law regarding public hearings. Based
upon those provisions, 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 imposes 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.
Second, a board of assessment review is in my view clearly a "public body" required to
comply with the Open Meetings Law [see Open Meetings Law, §102(2)]. While meetings of public bodies generally must be conducted in public unless there is a basis for entry into executive session, following public proceedings conducted by boards of assessment review, I believe that their deliberations could be characterized as "quasi-judicial proceedings" that would be exempt from the Open Meetings Law pursuant to §108(1) of that statute. It is emphasized, however, that even when the deliberations of such a board may be outside the coverage of the Open Meetings Law, its vote and other matters would not be exempt. As stated in Orange County Publications v. City of Newburgh:
"there is a distinction between that portion of a meeting...wherein the
members collectively weigh evidence taken during a public hearing,
apply the law and reach a conclusion and that part of its proceedings
in which its decision is announced, the vote of its members taken and
all of its other regular business is conducted. The latter is clearly
non-judicial and must be open to the public, while the former is indeed judicial in nature, as it affects the rights and liabilities of individuals" [60 AD 2d 409,418 (1978)].
Therefore, although an assessment board of review may deliberate in private, based upon the decision cited above, the act of voting or taking action must in my view occur during a meeting.
Moreover, both the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law impose record-keeping requirements upon public bodies. With respect to minutes of open meetings, §106(1) of the Open Meetings Law states that:
"Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon."
The minutes are not required to indicate how the Board reached its conclusion; however, I believe that the conclusion itself, i.e., a motion or resolution, must be included in minutes. I note, too, that since its enactment, the Freedom of Information Law has contained a related requirement in §87(3). The provision states in part that:
"Each agency shall maintain:
(a) a record of the final vote of each member in every agency proceeding in which the member votes..."
In short, because an assessment board of review is a "public body" and an "agency", I believe that it is required to prepare minutes in accordance with §106 of the Open Meetings Law, including a record of the votes of each member in conjunction with §87(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. The minutes that you enclosed do indicate how the Board members voted.
Lastly, I point out that §525(2)(a) of the Real Property Tax Law entitled "Hearing and
determination of complaints" states in part that:
"The assessor shall have the right to be heard on any complaint and upon his request his or her remarks with respect to any complaint shall be recorded in the minutes of the board. Such remarks may be made only in open and public session of the board of assessment review."
Based on the foregoing, insofar as the assessor was present for the purpose of offering information or a point of view, I believe that the public, pursuant to the Real Property Tax Law, had the right to be present.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Hon. Dean Lefebure
Board of Assessment Review