August 26, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you referred to a conversation we had several months ago in which it was advised that an advisory committee designated by the Town Board to prepare proposed revisions to the Town’s zoning law is not, according to judicial decisions, required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. You wrote that the committee has been meeting without notice, and in some instances, outside of the Town, and you added that "the appearance of secret meetings has caused many to approach you." You have asked that I "shed some legal light on this" and questioned whether the Town Board can "vote to compel" the committee conduct open meetings.
In this regard, by way of background, the Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of 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."
Based on the foregoing, a public body is, in my view, an entity required to conduct public business by means of a quorum that performs a governmental function and carries out its duties collectively, as a body. The definition refers to committees, subcommittees and similar bodies of a public body, and judicial interpretations indicate that if a committee, for example, consists solely of members of a particular public body, it constitutes a public body [see e.g., Glens Falls Newspapers v. Solid Waste and Recycling Committee of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, 195 AD2d 898 (1993)]. For instance, in the case of a legislative body consisting of seven members, four would constitute a quorum, and a gathering of that number or more for the purpose of conducting public business would be a meeting that falls within the scope of the Law. If that entity designates a committee consisting of three of its members, the committee would itself be a public body; its quorum would be two, and a gathering of two or more, in their capacities as members of that committee, would be a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law.
Several judicial decisions, however, indicate generally that advisory bodies, other than those consisting of members of a particular governing body, that have no power to take final action 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 Newspaper 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 one of the decisions, Poughkeepsie Newspaper, supra, a task force was designated by then Mayor Koch consisting of representatives of New York City agencies, as well as federal and state agencies and the Westchester County Executive, to review plans and make recommendations concerning the City's long range water supply needs. The Court specified that the Mayor was "free to accept or reject the recommendations" of the Task Force and that "[i]t is clear that the Task Force, which was created by invitation rather than by statute or executive order, has no power, on its own, to implement any of its recommendations" (id., 67). Referring to the other cases cited above, the Court found that "[t]he unifying principle running through these decisions is that groups or entities that do not, in fact, exercise the power of the sovereign are not performing a governmental function, hence they are not 'public bod[ies] subject to the Open Meetings Law..."(id.). I note, too, that the decision concerning the Town of Milan cited above involved the status of a "Zoning Revision Committee" designated by the Town Board to recommend changes in the zoning ordinance.
In the context of your inquiry, assuming that the committee has no authority to take any final and binding action for or on behalf of the Town, I do not believe that it constitutes a public body or, therefore, is obliged to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
Second, however, the foregoing is not intended to suggest that the committee cannot hold open meetings. On the contrary, it may choose to conduct meetings in public, and similar entities have done so, even though the Open Meetings Law does not require that they do so.
Further, I believe that the Town Board, the governing body, has the authority to direct that a committee that it has created must give effect to the Open Meetings Law. As you are likely aware, §64 of the Town Law confers general powers upon town boards, and subdivision (23), which is entitled "General powers", states that a board "Shall have and exercise all the powers conferred upon the town and such additional powers as shall necessarily be implied therefrom." In my view, since the Board has the power to create the committee, it is implicit that it has the power to require that the committee function in a certain way, in this instance, in accordance with the Open Meetings Law.
Lastly, §110 of the Open Meetings Law entitled "Construction with other laws" provides in subdivision (1) that any local enactment that is "more restrictive with respect to public access...shall be deemed superseded" by the Open Meetings Law to the extent that it grants lesser access than that statute. However, subdivision (2) provides that any such enactment or "rule" that is "less restrictive with respect to public access...shall not be deemed superseded..." That being so, I believe that the Town Board could by local law or rule require the committee to grant public access to its meetings in a manner consistent with the Open Meetings Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.