November 20, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter and the materials attached to it. You indicated that you serve as a member of the Kingston City School District Board of Education, and you have sought my views concerning a "retreat" conducted in private by the Board.
According to your letter, you "thought [the retreat] was to be informational and descriptive in nature", and not "a decision making-meeting." Although no action was taken at the retreat, the discussion involved "the rules we [Board members] operate under before, during and after meetings." Further, one of the attachments that you included is a memorandum that referred to the gathering as "a workshop retreat for the Superintendent’s Goals and District Goals." Another attachment that was apparently reviewed and discussed during the retreat is entitled "Ground Rules", and it includes a reference to a series of policies and procedures under which the Board and members operate.
In my view, which is based on the judicial interpretation and language of the Open Meetings Law, the "retreat" was a "meeting" that should have been held open to the public. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
As you are likely aware, the Open Meetings Law applies to meetings of public bodies, and a board of education clearly constitutes a public body required to comply with that statute. Section 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 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)].
Inherent in the definition and its judicial interpretation is the notion of intent. If there is an intent that a majority of a public body will convene for the purpose of conducting public business, such a gathering would, in my opinion, constitute a meeting subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law.
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, when a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, in their capacities as members of the body, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
On the other hand, if there is no intent that a majority of public body will gather for purpose of conducting public business, but rather for the purpose of gaining education, training, to develop or improve team building or communication skills, or to consider interpersonal relations, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would be applicable. In that event, if the gathering is to be held solely for those purposes, and not to conduct or discuss matters of public business, and if the members in fact do not conduct or intend to conduct public business collectively as a body, the activities occurring during that event would not in my view constitute a meeting of a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law.
In this instance, if indeed the retreat involved "District goals" and consideration of the policies and procedures referenced earlier, I believe that it constituted a "meeting" that fell within the requirements of the Open Meetings Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education