July 14, 2005
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 which you wrote that an item of controversy involves "whether the Town Board minutes should be posted on the Town’s web site." You indicated that, in your capacity as Town Clerk, you enter the names and addresses of those who speak at meetings "as part of the record", and that you do so "because in the ‘Office of Town Clerk’s’ handbook put out by the Association of Towns it states that in the minutes ‘names and addresses of persons appearing formally before the town board should be made part of the record.’"
You have sought my views concerning the foregoing, and in this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, while I have great respect for the Association of Towns, I know of no provision of law that requires that the names and addresses of those who speak at meetings of town boards or other public bodies be included in the minutes of a meeting or made "part of the record." On the contrary, the provision dealing with the content of minutes of meetings, §106 of the Open Meetings Law, includes what might be characterized as minimum requirements concerning the content of minutes. Specifically, §106 states that:
"1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.
2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon’ provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.
3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meeting except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session. ..."
Subdivision (1) pertains to minutes of open meetings, and at a minimum, that provision directs that minutes consist of a record or summary of motions, proposals, resolutions, action taken and the votes of the members. While minutes may include greater detail, such as the names and addresses of speakers, clearly there is no obligation to do so. In short, again, there is no requirement that minutes of meetings or any other record include the names and addresses of those who speak at meetings.
Second, §103(a) of the Open Meetings Law states meetings of public bodies "shall be open to the general public." Since any person may attend a meeting of a public body, irrespective of his or her status, interest, or residence, I do not believe that person can be required to provide his or her identity or address as a condition precedent to attending or participating in the same manner as other members of the public.
Third, factual situations have been brought to the attention of this office that demonstrate that it may be inappropriate or even dangerous for a speaker to identify himself or herself. Battered women and victims of violence may want to express their views, but, if, for example, they are attempting to protect themselves from abusers or attackers, providing their names and especially their addresses could endanger their lives or safety. In a different context, parents of students may want to express their opinions before a board of education without identifying themselves, for doing so would identify their children, perhaps to their detriment. In short, I believe that there may be valid, justifiable reasons for speakers not identifying themselves or having their names and/or addresses included in minutes of meetings.
Lastly, there are innumerable instances in which records or portions of records, such as names and addresses, are and have historically been available to the public. However, the wisdom of placing those items on a website is, in my opinion, questionable. When a person’s name and home address are placed on a website, anyone, anywhere in the world, has the ability to obtain and combine them with other items available in cyberspace by means of various search engines and data mining. When a name and an address are placed on a website, anyone, anywhere has the ability to acquire a variety of additional data about a person and use that information for purposes that cannot be anticipated. Persons identified may be solicited online or by other means; profiles of individuals can be developed; information about a person may be used for illegal purposes or perhaps to transmit viruses that can disable computers or electronic information systems.
In sum, while there is no law that would forbid the Town from including peoples’ names and addresses in minutes of meetings or placing minutes on its website, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law or any other statute that requires that speakers’ names and addresses be included. Further, in consideration of the potential uses of personal information placed on a website, it is unwise, in my opinion, to include individuals’ names and addresses in minutes that are to placed on a website. I note, too, that minutes of meetings of municipal boards are often accessible via municipalities’ websites, but without the inclusion of those items of personal information.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman