April 28, 2004
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.
I have received your letter in which you raised two issues. One involves the status of the Town of Hamlin "Comprehensive Plan/Zoning Code Committee", which is characterized on the Town’s website as the "Comprehensive Master Plan Committee" (hereafter "the Committee"); the other pertains to the ability to disclose information obtained during closed meetings.
By way of background, you wrote that the Committee evolved from a predecessor organization created to draft a new zoning law pertaining to telecommunication towers, and that the Supervisor invited the members of that entity to be members of the Committee. Some of them chose to join the Committee, while others declined. You were "invited" by a co-chair of the Committee to join, and you did so. In addition, the Supervisor appointed other new members. You wrote that following the Committee’s second meeting, you were "confronted by the Supervisor, the Co-Chairman and a Town Board member" and were "told that [you] would have to be silent, both on [your] website and to the media, with regard to the discussions of the Committee." According to your letter, soon after, the "Supervisor posted a message on the Town’s website which stated that further appointments were planned and that the Committee meetings would be closed to the public." He contended that the Committee is advisory in nature and, therefore, is not subject to the Open Meetings Law. Because the meetings could be closed, he, in your words, said that "the conversations would be private" and that you could be "prevented" from "reporting to the public." It is your view that the meetings of the Committee must be held open to the public based on the provisions of §272-a of the Town Law.
In this regard, first, the Open Meetings Law is applicable to public bodies , and §102(2) of that statute 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."
Judicial decisions indicate generally that advisory bodies having no power to take final action, other than committees consisting solely of members of public bodies, fall outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. As stated in those decisions: "it has long been held that the mere giving of advice, even about governmental matters is not itself a governmental function" [Goodson-Todman Enterprises, Ltd. v. Town Board of Milan, 542 NYS 2d 373, 374, 151 AD 2d 642 (1989); Poughkeepsie Newspapers v. Mayor's Intergovernmental Task Force, 145 AD 2d 65, 67 (1989); see also New York Public Interest Research Group v. Governor's Advisory Commission, 507 NYS 2d 798, aff'd with no opinion, 135 AD 2d 1149, motion for leave to appeal denied, 71 NY 2d 964 (1988)].
In the decisions cited above, none of the entities was designated by law to carry out a particular duty and all had purely advisory functions. More analogous to the matter in my view is the decision rendered in MFY Legal Services v. Toia [402 NYS 2d 510 (1977)]. That case involved an advisory body created by statute to advise the Commissioner of the State Department of Social Services. In MFY, it was found that "[a]lthough the duty of the committee is only to give advice which may be disregarded by the Commissioner, the Commissioner may, in some instances, be prohibited from acting before he receives that advice" (id. 511) and that, "[t]herefore, the giving of advice by the Committee either on their own volition or at the request of the Commissioner is a necessary governmental function for the proper actions of the Social Services Department" (id. 511-512).
From my perspective, if the Committee is a "special board" as that phrase is defined in §272-a(2)(c) of the Town Law, it would exist by means of a statutory authorization and would constitute a public body required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. "Special board" is defined in that provision to mean:
"a board consisting of one more members of the planning board and such other members as are appointed by the town board to prepare a proposed comprehensive plan and/or amendment thereto."
Based on the information that you provided, the Committee does not appear to be a special board. As you described it, the Committee consists of persons appointed by the Supervisor and perhaps the co-chairs; the Committee does not appear to have been created nor have its members been appointed by the Town Board. If that information is accurate, again, the Committee would not appear to be a special board, but rather an advisory body. If that is so, based on the decisions cited above, it would not be required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. This is not to suggest that it could not hold open meetings, but rather that it would not be obligated to do so.
Second, whether a meeting is open to the public or closed is generally irrelevant with respect to your ability to disseminate information that you have acquired. Even when the Open Meetings Law applies and a public body validly enters into an executive session, there is ordinarily nothing privileged or confidential about the information expressed or acquired during the executive session.
For purposes of considering the issue of confidentiality, reference will be made to the Open Meetings Law, as well as the Freedom of Information Law. Both of those statutes are based on a presumption of openness. In brief, the former requires that meetings of public bodies be conducted open to the public, except when an executive session may properly be held under §105(1) or when a matter is exempt from its coverage; the latter requires that agency records be made available to the public, except to the extent that one or more grounds for denial access appearing in §87(2) may properly be asserted. The first ground for denial in the Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." Similarly, §108(3) of the Open Meetings Law refers to matters made confidential by state or federal law as "exempt" from the provisions of that statute.
Both the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, and federal courts in construing access statutes have determined that the characterization of records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure by statute" must be based on statutory language that specifically confers or requires confidentiality. As stated by the Court of Appeals:
"Although we have never held that a State statute must expressly state it is intended to establish a FOIL exemption, we have required a showing of clear legislative intent to establish and preserve that confidentiality which one resisting disclosure claims as protection" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 567 (1986)].
In like manner, in construing the equivalent exception to rights of access in the federal Freedom of Information Act, it has been found that:
"Exemption 3 excludes from its coverage only matters that are:
specifically exempted from disclosure by statute (other than section 552b of this title), provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.
"5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3) (1982) (emphasis added). Records sought to be withheld under authority of another statute thus escape the release requirements of FOIA if – and only if – that statute meets the requirements of Exemption 3, including the threshold requirement that it specifically exempt matters from disclosure. The Supreme Court has equated ‘specifically’ with ‘explicitly.’ Baldridge v. Shapiro, 455 U.S. 345, 355, 102 S. Ct. 1103, 1109, 71 L.Ed.2d 199 (1982). ‘[O]nly explicitly non-disclosure statutes that evidence a congressional determination that certain materials ought to be kept in confidence will be sufficient to qualify under the exemption.’ Irons & Sears v. Dann, 606 F.2d 1215, 1220 (D.C.Cir.1979) (emphasis added). In other words, a statute that is claimed to qualify as an Exemption 3 withholding statute must, on its face, exempt matters from disclosure"[Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press v. U.S. Department of Justice, 816 F.2d 730, 735 (1987); modified on other grounds,831 F.2d 1184 (1987); reversed on other grounds, 489 U.S. 789 (1989); see also British Airports Authority v. C.A.B., D.C.D.C.1982, 531 F.Supp. 408; Inglesias v. Central Intelligence Agency, D.C.D.C.1981, 525 F.Supp, 547; Hunt v. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, D.C.D.C.1979, 484 F.Supp. 47; Florida Medical Ass’n, Inc. v. Department of Health, Ed. & Welfare, D.C.Fla.1979, 479 F.Supp. 1291].
In short, to be "exempted from disclosure by statute", both state and federal courts have determined that a statute must leave no discretion to an agency: it must withhold such records.
In contrast, when records are not exempted from disclosure by a separate statute, both the Freedom of Information Law and its federal counterpart are permissive. Although an agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the Court of Appeals has held that the agency is not obliged to do so and may choose to disclose, stating that:
"...while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling within the statutory exemptions, the language of the exemption provision contains permissible rather than mandatory language, and it is within the agency’s discretion to disclose such records...if it so chooses" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY2d 562, 567 (1986)].
The only situations in which an agency cannot disclose would involve those instances in which a statute other than the Freedom of Information Law prohibits disclosure. The same is so under the federal Act. While a federal agency may withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has discretionary authority to disclose. Stated differently, there is nothing inherently confidential about records that an agency may choose to withhold or disclose; only when an agency has no discretion and must deny access would records be confidential or "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute" in accordance with §87(2)(a).
The same analysis is applicable in the context of the Open Meetings Law. While that statute authorizes public bodies to conduct executive sessions in circumstances described in paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1), there is no requirement that an executive session be held even though a public body has the right to do so. The introductory language of §105(1), which prescribes a procedure that must be accomplished before an executive session may be held, clearly indicates that a public body "may" conduct an executive session only after having completed that procedure. If, for example, a motion is made to conduct an executive session for a valid reason, and the motion is not carried, the public body could either discuss the issue in public or table the matter for discussion in the future.
Since a public body may choose to conduct an executive session or discuss an issue in public, information expressed during an executive session is not "confidential." To be confidential, again, a statute must prohibit disclosure and leave no discretion to an agency or official regarding the ability to disclose.
By means of example, if a discussion by a board of education concerns a record pertaining to a particular student (i.e., in the case of consideration of disciplinary action, an educational program, an award, etc.), the discussion would have to occur in private and the record would have to be withheld insofar as public discussion or disclosure would identify the student. As you may be aware, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g) generally prohibits an educational agency from disclosing education records or information derived from those records that are identifiable to a student, unless the parents of the student consent to disclosure. In the context of the Open Meetings Law, a discussion concerning a student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law and would be exempted from the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §108(3)]. In the context of the Freedom of Information Law, an education record would be specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in accordance with §87(2)(a). In both contexts, I believe that a board of education, its members and school district employees would be prohibited from disclosing, because a statute requires confidentiality.
In a case in which the issue was whether discussions occurring during an executive session held by a school board could be considered "privileged", it was held that "there is no statutory provision that describes the matter dealt with at such a session as confidential or which in any way restricts the participants from disclosing what took place" (Runyon v. Board of Education, West Hempstead Union Free School District No. 27, Supreme Court, Nassau County, January 29, 1987).
In the context of most of the duties of most municipal boards, councils or similar bodies, there is no statute that forbids disclosure or requires confidentiality.
In short, when a governmental entity may choose to disclose or withhold records or to discuss in issue in public or in private, I do not believe that the records or the discussion may be considered "confidential"; only when the government has no discretion and must withhold records or discuss a matter in private could the records or information be so considered.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Hon. Austin Warner, Supervisor