June 16, 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 concerning the propriety of certain actions purportedly taken by the Town of Claverack.
The matter involves the creation of a water district and the site of a water tower. As indicated during a phone conversation, the jurisdiction of the Committee on Open Government involves the ability to offer advice and opinions relating to the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws. Consequently, the following remarks will relate to issues concerning those statutes.
You wrote that during a recent meeting of the Town Board, "it was revealed that a decision had been made as to the location of the Tower." Although the decision was apparently made based on an engineer’s recommendation, you indicated that "no formal vote" was taken "by the full board." You added that Town officials informed residents that no report containing the engineer’s recommendations exists.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, by way of background, the Open Meetings Law pertains to meetings of public bodies, and §102(2) of that statute defines the term "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."
The Town Board is clearly a public body required to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
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". Based upon an ordinary dictionary definition of "convene", that term means:
"1. to summon before a tribunal;
2. to cause to assembly syn see 'SUMMON'" (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Copyright 1965).
In view of the ordinary definition of "convene", I believe that a "convening" of a quorum requires the physical coming together of at least a majority of the total membership of the Board, or a convening by means of videoconferencing. An affirmative vote of a majority would be needed for the Board to take action or to carry out its duties.
I note that provisions in the Open Meetings Law concerning videoconferencing are newly enacted (Chapter 289 of the Laws of 2000), and in my view, those amendments 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 earlier, 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." Moreover, 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.
In sum, I do not believe that the Town Board could validly have taken action, except at a meeting during which a quorum convened and in which a majority of the Board’s total membership voted in favor of the proposed action.
Second, while I am unaware of whether any report or similar document relates to the siting of the water tower, I note that the Freedom of Information Law is expansive in the scope, for it pertains to all records kept by or prepared for an agency, such as a town. Section 86(4) defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Based on the foregoing, any documentation maintained by or for the Town, irrespective of its origin or physical location, would constitute a "record" subject to rights conferred by the Freedom of Information law.
I note, too, that when an agency indicates that it does not maintain or cannot locate a record, an applicant for the record may seek a certification to that effect. Section 89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law provides in part that, in such a situation, on request, an agency "shall certify that it does not have possession of such record or that such record cannot be found after diligent search." If you consider it worthwhile to do so, you could seek such a certification.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Town Board