November 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. In your capacity as a member of the Shandaken Town Board, you wrote that the Board appointed a cell tower committee that is "tasked with forming a cell tower law, that then will be reviewed by all involved agencies and ultimately be voted on by the town board." The committee held its first meeting without giving notice to the public, and the Town Supervisor and two other members of the Board attended. You contend that their presence would have made the gathering a Board meeting and asked whether the cell tower committee meetings must "be announced in the papers as other committees are."
If my understanding of the matter is accurate, the cell tower committee is not required to comply with the Open Meetings Law or provide notice of its meetings. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
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 board of education 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 board 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.).
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 a government agency, I do not believe that it constitutes a public body or, therefore, is obliged to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
This 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.
With respect to the presence of three members of the Town Board at the meeting of the cell tower committee, if they did not function as the Board but were merely part of the audience as attendees at the meeting, I do not believe their presence could be considered a Board meeting.
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". The definition 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 quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a "meeting" that must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take 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)].
Based upon the direction given by the courts, if a majority of the Board gathers to discuss Town business, in their capacities as Board members, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
With respect to chance meetings, it was found that:
"We agree that not every assembling of the members of a public body was intended to be included within the definition. Clearly casual encounters by members do not fall within the open meetings statutes. But an informal 'conference' or 'agenda session' does, for it permits 'the crystallization of secret decisions to point just short of ceremonial acceptance'" (id. at 416).
In view of the foregoing, if members of a public body meet by chance or at a social gathering, for example, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would apply, for there would be no intent to conduct public business, collectively, as a body.
I point out that questions similar to yours have arisen at workshops and seminars during which I have spoken and which were attended by many, including perhaps a majority of the membership of several public bodies. Some of those persons have asked whether their presence at those gatherings fell within the scope of the Open Meetings Law. In brief, I have responded that, since the members of those entities did not attend for the purpose of conducting public business as a body, the Open Meetings Law, in my opinion, did not apply. It would appear that the same conclusion may be pertinent with respect to the matter that you described.
I hope that I have been of assistance.