June 14, 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 referred to a passage contained in an opinion rendered by this office concerning the contents of minutes. Specifically, when, during a meeting or "workshop" there are no motions, proposals, resolutions or action taken, it was advised that, in a technical sense, there is no requirement that minutes be prepared. You referred, however, to "straw polls" taken during workshops "which decide which way to bring a resolution to the formal meeting, to kill a resolution or make a modification to a proposed resolution." You also wrote that you "also take these straw polls, or reach a consensus, on direction to various county department heads, the county manager, the county attorney or other functionaries within the county."
You asked whether "these kind of actions need to be the subject of minutes."
In this regard, when action is taken by a public body, it must be memorialized in minutes, for §106 of the Open Meetings Law provides that:
"1. 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.
2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.
3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."
In view of the foregoing, it is clear in my opinion that minutes of open meetings must include reference to action taken by a public body.
Further, if a public body reaches a consensus upon which it relies, I believe that minutes reflective of decisions reached must be prepared and made available. In Previdi v. Hirsch [524 NYS 2d 643 (1988)], the issue involved access to records, i.e., minutes of executive sessions held under the Open Meetings Law. Although it was assumed by the court that the executive sessions were properly held, it was found that "this was no basis for respondents to avoid publication of minutes pertaining to the 'final determination' of any action, and 'the date and vote thereon'" (id., 646). The court stated that:
"The fact that respondents characterize the vote as taken by 'consensus' does not exclude the recording of same as a 'formal vote'. To hold otherwise would invite circumvention of the statute.
"Moreover, respondents' interpretation of what constitutes the 'final determination of such action' is overly restrictive. The reasonable intendment of the statute is that 'final action' refers to the matter voted upon, not final determination of, as in this case, the litigation discussed or finality in terms of exhaustion or remedies" (id. 646).
Therefore, if a public body reaches a "consensus" that is reflective of its final determination of an issue, I believe that minutes must be prepared that indicate its action, as well as the manner in which each member voted [see FOIL, §87(3)(a)].
In contrast, a "straw vote", or something like it, that is not binding and does not represent members' action that could be construed as final, could in my view be taken but not recorded in minutes when it represents a means of ascertaining whether additional discussion is warranted or necessary. If a "straw vote" does not represent a final action or final determination, I do not believe that minutes including the votes of the members would be required to be prepared.
I hope that I have been of assistance.