January 20, 2005
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 correspondence concerning the status of an entity created by the Chair of Community Board # 1, upon which you serve as a member. The entity consists of five members of the Board and has apparently been referenced by means of several titles, such as the Subcommittee of the Tribeca Committee, the Tribeca Rezoning Subcommittee, the Tribeca Rezoning Committee, the Tribeca Zoning Task Force, and the Tribeca Rezoning Working Group.
From my perspective, since the entity consists of members of the Community Board and was designated by the Chair, it falls within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, judicial decisions indicate generally that advisory bodies having no authority to take binding action and which typically include persons other than members of a governing body 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 Newspapers 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)]. Therefore, an advisory body, such as a citizens' advisory committee, would not in my opinion be subject to the Open Meetings Law, even if a member of a governing body or the staff of an agency participates.
Second, however, when a committee consists solely of members of a public body, such as a community board, I believe that the Open Meetings Law is applicable.
By way of background, when the Open Meetings Law went into effect in 1977, questions consistently arose with respect to the status of committees, subcommittees and similar bodies that had no capacity to take final action, but rather merely the authority to advise. Those questions arose due to the definition of "public body" as it appeared in the Open Meetings Law as it was originally enacted. Perhaps the leading case on the subject also involved a situation in which a governing body, a school board, designated committees consisting of less than a majority of the total membership of the board. In Daily Gazette Co., Inc. v. North Colonie Board of Education [67 AD 2d 803 (1978)], it was held that those advisory committees, which had no capacity to take final action, fell outside the scope of the definition of "public body".
Nevertheless, prior to its passage, the bill that became the Open Meetings Law was debated on the floor of the Assembly. During that debate, questions were raised regarding the status of "committees, subcommittees and other subgroups." In response to those questions, the sponsor stated that it was his intent that such entities be included within the scope of the definition of "public body" (see Transcript of Assembly proceedings, May 20, 1976, pp. 6268-6270).
Due to the determination rendered in Daily Gazette, supra, which was in apparent conflict with the stated intent of the sponsor of the legislation, a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law was enacted in 1979 and became effective on October 1 of that year. Among the changes was a redefinition of the term "public body". "Public body" is now defined in §102(2) to include:
"...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."
Although the original definition made reference to entities that "transact" public business, the current definition makes reference to entities that "conduct" public business. Moreover, the definition makes specific reference to "committees, subcommittees and similar bodies" of a public body.
In view of the amendments to the definition of "public body", I believe that any entity consisting of two or more members of a public body, such as a committee, a subcommittee or "similar body" consisting of members of the Community Board, would fall within the requirements of the Open Meetings Law when such an entity discusses or conducts public business collectively as a body [see Syracuse United Neighbors v. City of Syracuse, 80 AD 2d 984 (1981)]. A quorum of a public body is a majority of its total membership (see General Construction Law, §41). Therefore, in a body consisting of fifty-one, a quorum would be twenty-six. If that body designates a committee of five, a quorum of the committee would be three.
I hope that I have been of assistance.