June 2, 2004
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.
As you are aware, I have received your letter. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
You wrote that the Clerk in the Village of Forestville has suggested that the Board is required only "to put [notice of meetings] in the paper once a year since the meeting where held [sic] at the same time every month." You asked whether that is proper, and whether notice must be given prior to "workshops."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, I do not believe that there is any legal distinction between a "workshop" and a "meeting." By way of background, 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 majority of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a "meeting" that must be conducted open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to have 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)].
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 the Board convenes to discuss the Village business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law, even if it is characterized as a "workshop."
Second, the Open Meetings Law requires that notice be given to the news media and posted prior to every meeting. Specifically, §104 of that statute provides that:
"1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before each meeting.
2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be given, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto.
3. The public notice provided for by this section shall not be construed to require publication as a legal notice."
Stated differently, if a meeting is scheduled at least a week in advance, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and to the public by means of posting in one or more designated public locations, not less than seventy-two hours prior to the meeting. If a meeting is scheduled less than a week an advance, again, notice of the time and place must be given to the news media and posted in the same manner as described above, "to the extent practicable", at a reasonable time prior to the meeting. Therefore, if, for example, there is a need to convene quickly, the notice requirements can generally be met by telephoning the local news media and by posting notice in one or more designated locations.
In the context of your inquiry, if a series of meetings have been scheduled in advance to be held at particular times, the posting of a notice of a schedule of those meetings in a conspicuous public location and transmittal of that notice once to the news media would in my view satisfy §104 of the Open Meetings Law regarding those meetings. The only instances in which additional notice would be required would involve unscheduled meetings that are not referenced in the notice.
Therefore, if, for instance, the Board of Trustees, establishes at its organizational meeting that formal meetings will be held on the second Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. in Village Hall, and that workshop meetings will be held on the fourth Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. in Village Hall, and if notice containing that information is posted continuously and transmitted once to the local news media, I believe that the board would satisfy the notice requirements imposed by the Open Meetings Law. Again, the only additional notice would involve unscheduled meetings. I point out, too, that although notice of meetings must be given to the news media, there is no requirement that the news media print or publicize that a meeting will be held.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Board of Trustees