November 3, 2004
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.
I have received your letter in which you raised a series of questions relating to the Open Meetings Law and, in some respects, to the Freedom of Information Law. An attempt will be made to address them, but not necessarily in the order in which they are presented.
Your initial question involves "the purpose of the Open Meetings Law." In brief, I believe that the law is intended to enable the public to witness the performance of members of public bodies and to open the deliberative process leading to the making of decisions to public view. As stated in §100, the legislative declaration:
"It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants."
Second, soon after the enactment of the Open Meetings Law, the courts dealt with and rejected contentions that "workshops" and similar gatherings fell beyond the coverage of that law. In considering that issue, it is emphasized that the definition of "meeting" [§102(1)] has been broadly interpreted by the courts. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the Court of Appeals 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)].
I point out that 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, if a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. Since a workshop held by a majority of a public body is a "meeting", it would have the same responsibilities in relation to notice and the taking of minutes as in the case of a formal meeting, as well as the same requirements of openness and ability to enter into executive sessions.
If no quorum has convened, the Open Meetings Law does not apply. If, for example, two of the five members of a town board meet, the Open Meetings Law would have no application, and I know of no requirement that those two members inform the other members of the fact their meeting or the nature of their discussion. They may choose to do so, but again, I know of no obligation to do so.
Third, the Open Meetings Law requires that notice be given 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. Although the Open Meetings Law does not make reference to "special" or "emergency" meetings, 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.
Next, a public body cannot conduct an executive session to discuss the subject of its choice. By way of background, the phrase "executive session" is defined in §102(3) of the Open Meetings Law to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded. As such, an executive session is not separate and distinct from a meeting, but rather is a portion of an open meeting. The Law also contains a procedure that must be accomplished during an open meeting before an executive session may be held. Specifically, §105(1) states in relevant part that:
"Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only..."
The ensuing provisions, paragraphs (a) through (i), specify and limit the subjects that may properly be considered in executive session.
In consideration of the foregoing, it has been consistently advised that a public body, in a technical sense, cannot schedule or conduct an executive session in advance of a meeting, because a vote to enter into an executive session must be taken at an open meeting during which the executive session is held. In a decision involving the propriety of scheduling executive sessions prior to meetings, it was held that:
"The respondent Board prepared an agenda for each of the five designated regularly scheduled meetings in advance of the time that those meetings were to be held. Each agenda listed 'executive session' as an item of business to be undertaken at the meeting. The petitioner claims that this procedure violates the Open Meetings Law because under the provisions of Public Officers Law section 100 provides that a public body cannot schedule an executive session in advance of the open meeting. Section 100 provides that a public body may conduct an executive session only for certain enumerated purposes after a majority vote of the total membership taken at an open meeting has approved a motion to enter into such a session. Based upon this, it is apparent that petitioner is technically correct in asserting that the respondent cannot decide to enter into an executive session or schedule such a session in advance of a proper vote for the same at an open meeting" [Doolittle, Matter of v. Board of Education, Sup. Cty., Chemung Cty., July 21, 1981; note: the Open Meetings Law has been renumbered and §100 is now §105].
For the reasons expressed in the preceding commentary, a public body cannot in my view schedule an executive session in advance of a meeting. In short, because a vote to enter into an executive session must be made and carried by a majority vote of the total membership during an open meeting, technically, it cannot be known in advance of that vote that the motion will indeed be approved. However, an alternative method of achieving the desired result that would comply with the letter of the law has been suggested in conjunction with similar situations. Rather than scheduling an executive session, the Board on its agenda or notice of a meeting could refer to or schedule a motion to enter into executive session to discuss certain subjects. Reference to a motion to conduct an executive session would not represent an assurance that an executive session would ensue, but rather that there is an intent to enter into an executive session by means of a vote to be taken during a meeting.
Certainly a member of the Board may transmit a memo to other Board members suggesting that executive session be held at an upcoming meeting. Nevertheless, the procedure described in §105(1) must be followed to comply with law, and again, an executive session may only be held to discuss one or more of the subjects enumerated in paragraphs (a) through (i) of that provision. That the majority believes that compliance "does not make sense" would not, in my opinion, constitute a valid reason for failing to comply with law.
You focused on a particular ground for entry into executive session and asked, "[w]hat criteria must be met to qualify under the real estate exception." That provision, §§105(1)(h), permits a public body to enter into executive session to discuss:
"the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof."
In my opinion, the language quoted above, like the other grounds for entry into executive session, is based on the principle that public business must be discussed in public unless public discussion would in some way be damaging, either to an individual, for example, or to a government in terms of its capacity to perform its functions appropriately and in the best interest of the public. It is clear that §105(1)(h) does not permit public bodies to conduct executive sessions to discuss all matters that may relate to the transaction of real property; only to the extent that publicity would "substantially affect the value of the property" can that provision validly be asserted.
A key question, in my view, involves the extent to which information relating to possible real property transactions has become known to the public. The more that is known, the less likely it is that publicity would have an impact on the value of a parcel or in some way damage the interests of taxpayers. I note that the language of §105(1)(h) does not refer to negotiations per se or the impact of publicity upon negotiations relating to a parcel; rather its proper assertion is limited to situations in which publicity would have a substantial effect on the value of the property. It has been advised, for example, that when a municipality is seeking to purchase a parcel and the public is unaware of the location or locations under consideration, it is possible if not likely that premature disclosure or publicity would indeed substantially affect the value of the property. In that kind of situation, publicity might result in speculation or offers from others, thereby precluding the municipality from reaching an optimal price on behalf of the taxpayers. However, when details concerning a potential real property transaction, such as the location and potential uses of the property, are known to the public, publicity would have a lesser effect or impact on the value of the parcel. Again, the more that is known to the public, the less likely it is that publicity would affect the value of a parcel.
Next, you referred to a memorandum being marked "confidential" and asked whether it should be placed in the Town Clerk’s "official file" and whether it is subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In this regard, the Freedom of Information Law includes all government agency records within its coverage, for §86(4) defines the term "record" expansively to mean:
"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."
I point out that the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.
Stamping, marking or asserting that record is "confidential" is all but meaningless. The Court of Appeals held years ago that rights of access and the ability to deny access to records is fixed by the Freedom of Information Law. Only to the extent that records or portions of records fall within the exceptions listed in §87(2) would a denial of access be proper, irrespective of a claim of confidentiality [ see e.g., Doolan v. Boces, 48 NY 2d 341, 347 (1979)].
One of the grounds for denial would be pertinent in the context of the situation that you described. Section 87(2)(g) authorizes an agency to deny access to records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.
As for the Town Clerk’s "official file", I do not know the meaning of that phrase. All records are subject to the Freedom of Information Law, whether they are characterized as "official" or otherwise. I note, too, that §30 of the Town Law indicates that a town clerk is the custodian of all town records. In my view, the memorandum to which you referred would be in the legal custody of the clerk, regardless of its physical location.
Lastly, and in a somewhat related vein, you raised the following question:
"May either the Chair of an advisory board (that operated under the auspices of the Town and whose stenographer is paid by the Town) or the Town Supervisor refuse to provide a Town Board member with meeting minutes and/or correspondence (by e-mail or otherwise) produced by the advisory board?"
In my view, the records prepared by the chair of the board to which you referred are not the property of that person; on the contrary, I believe that they would be in the legal custody of the Town Clerk and would constitute records subject to rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Law. Further, in my opinion, the Town Supervisor would have no greater right of access or control over those records than any other member of the Town Board.
I hope that I have been of assistance. If you would like to discuss the issues considered here or others pertaining to the Open Meetings or Freedom of Information Laws, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman