December 29, 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 in which you questioned the "process" by which the Orangetown Planning Board, upon which you serve, has apparently taken certain action.
According to your letter, you learned that four of the seven members of the Board "signed and sent a letter to a private attorney stating that they disagreed with a legal position taken by the Town Attorney", who petitioned a court to authorize the consolidation of several lawsuits relating to two projects. You wrote that the issue of consolidating the lawsuits was never discussed at a meeting of the Board, and that it was considered by means of a "series of phone calls." You added that you were never asked to sign the letter and learned of it only after it was sent, that the letter "appears to take a legal position on a lawsuit", that those who signed the letter identified themselves as chair, vice chair and members, and that another member of the Board "was likewise kept in the dark."
From my perspective, a public body, such as a planning board, may validly conduct a meeting or carry out its authority only at a meeting during which a majority of its members has physically convened or during which a majority has convened by means of videoconferencing, and even then, only when reasonable notice is given to all of the members. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, by way of background, it is emphasized that the definition of "meeting" [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, 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 Board 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.
Second, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that would preclude members of a public body from conferring individually, by telephone, via mail or e-mail. However, a series of communications between individual members or telephone calls among the members which results in a collective decision, a meeting held by means of a telephone conference or series of telephone calls, or a vote taken by mail or e-mail would in my opinion be inconsistent with law.
Based on relatively recent legislation and as suggested earlier, I believe that voting and action by a public body may be carried out only at a meeting during which a quorum has physically convened, or during a meeting held by videoconference. It is noted that the Open Meetings Law pertains to public bodies, and §102(2) defines the phrase "public body" to mean:
"...any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body."
As amended, §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, including the use of videoconferencing for attendance and participation by the members of the public body." Based upon an ordinary dictionary definition of "convene", that term means:
"1. to summon before a tribunal;
2. to cause to assemble syn see 'SUMMON'" (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Copyright 1965).
In view of that definition and others, I believe that a meeting, i.e., the "convening" of a public body, involves the physical coming together of at least a majority of the total membership of such a body, i.e., the Planning Board, or a convening that occurs through videoconferencing. I point out, too, that §103(c) of the Open Meetings Law states that "A public body that uses videoconferencing to conduct its meetings shall provide an opportunity to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates."
The amendments to the Open Meetings Law in my view clearly indicate that there are only two ways in which a public body may validly conduct a meeting. Any other means of conducting a meeting, i.e., by telephone, by mail, or by e-mail, would be inconsistent with law.
As indicated above, the definition of the phrase "public body" refers to entities that are required to conduct public business by means of a quorum. The term "quorum" is defined in §41 of the General Construction Law, which has been in effect since 1909. The cited provision, which was also amended to include language concerning videoconferencing, states that:
"Whenever three of more public officers are given any power or authority, or three or more persons are charged with any public duty to be performed or exercised by them jointly or as a board or similar body, a majority of the whole number of such persons or officers, gathered together in the presence of each other or through the use of videoconferencing, at a meeting duly held at a time fixed by law, or by any by-law duly adopted by such board of body, or at any duly adjourned meeting of such meeting, or at any meeting duly held upon reasonable notice to all of them, shall constitute a quorum and not less than a majority of the whole number may perform and exercise such power, authority or duty. For the purpose of this provision the words 'whole number' shall be construed to mean the total number which the board, commission, body or other group of persons or officers would have were there no vacancies and were none of the persons or officers disqualified from acting."
Based on the foregoing, again, a valid meeting may occur only when a majority of the total membership of a public body, a quorum, has "gathered together in the presence of each other or through the use of videoconferencing." Only when a quorum has convened in the manner described in §41 of the General Construction Law would a public body have the authority to carry out its powers and duties. Consequently, it is my opinion that a public body may not take action or vote by means of telephone calls or e-mail. Moreover, §41 requires that reasonable notice be given to all the members. If that does not occur, even if a majority is present, I do not believe that a valid meeting could be held or that action could validly be taken.
In the only decision dealing with a vote taken by phone, the court found the vote to be a nullity. In Cheevers v. Town of Union (Supreme Court, Broome County, September 3, 1998), which cited and relied upon an opinion rendered by this office, the court stated that:
"...there is a question as to whether the series of telephone calls among the individual members constitutes a meeting which would be subject to the Open Meetings Law. A meeting is defined as ‘the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business’ (Public Officers Law §102). Although ‘not every assembling of the members of a public body was intended to fall within the scope of the Open Meetings Law [such as casual encounters by members], ***informal conferences, agenda sessions and work sessions to invoke the provisions of the statute when a quorum is present and when the topics for discussion and decision are such as would otherwise arise at a regular meeting’ (Matter of Goodson Todman Enter. v. City of Kingston Common Council, 153 AD2d 103, 105). Peripheral discussions concerning an item of public business are subject to the provisions of the statute in the same manner was formal votes (see, Matter of Orange County Publs. v. Council of City of Newburgh, 60 AD2d 309, 415 Affd 45 NY2d 947).
"The issue was the Town’s policy concerning tax assessment reductions, clearly a matter of public business. There was no physical gathering, but four members of the five member board discussed the issue in a series of telephone calls. As a result, a quorum of members of the Board were ‘present’ and determined to publish the Dear Resident article. The failure to actually meet in person or have a telephone conference in order to avoid a ‘meeting’ circumvents the intent of the Open Meetings Law (see e.g., 1998 Advisory Opns Committee on Open Government 2877). This court finds that telephonic conferences among the individual members constituted a meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Law..."
I direct your attention to the legislative declaration of the Open Meetings Law, §100, which states in part 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.
Based on the foregoing, the Open Meetings Law is intended to provide the public with the right to observe the performance of public officials in their deliberations. That intent cannot be realized if members of a public body conduct public business as a body or vote by phone, by mail, or by e-mail.
In sum, I agree with your inference that the "process" by which the four members of the Board constructively took action appears to have been inconsistent with law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman