August 25, 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.
I have received your letter and the memorandum relating to it. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
You indicated that the Hyde Park Town Board conducted an executive session that you did not attend, and when it reconvened in public, "the Supervisor announced that two (2) decisions were made." On the following day, you contacted the Town Attorney to request that he verify that a vote was taken during the executive session. He referred your inquiry to the attorney who was present and wrote that:
"No votes were taken in Executive Session. In both instances the Board simply confirmed decisions it had previously made."
You wrote that you "fail to understand what that answer means." I must admit that I do not understand it either. Nevertheless, I offer the following comments.
First, as you are aware, the Open Meetings Law contains direction concerning minutes of meetings and provides what might be viewed as minimum requirements pertaining to their contents. 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 meetings 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."
In view of the foregoing, as a general rule, a public body may take action during a properly convened executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)]. If action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must generally be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law. If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared.
I point out that minutes of executive sessions need not include information that may be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law. From my perspective, when a public body makes a final determination during an executive session, that determination will, in most instances, be public. For example, although a discussion to hire or fire a particular employee could clearly be discussed during an executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)(f), a determination to hire or fire that person would be recorded in minutes and would be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law. On other hand, if a public body votes to initiate a disciplinary proceeding against a public employee, minutes reflective of its action would not have include reference to or identify the person, for the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would result in an unwarranted personal privacy such as unsubstantiated charges or allegations [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(b)].
On occasion, public bodies have taken action by what has been characterized as "consensus." If a public body reaches a consensus upon which it relies, I believe that minutes reflective of decisions reached must be prepared and made available. In Previdi v. Hirsch [524 NYS 2d 643 (1988)], the issue involved access to records, i.e., minutes of executive sessions held under the Open Meetings Law. Although it was assumed by the court that the executive sessions were properly held, it was found that "this was no basis for respondents to avoid publication of minutes pertaining to the 'final determination' of any action, and 'the date and vote thereon'" (id., 646). The court stated that:
"The fact that respondents characterize the vote as taken by 'consensus' does not exclude the recording of same as a 'formal vote'. To hold otherwise would invite circumvention of the statute.
"Moreover, respondents' interpretation of what constitutes the 'final determination of such action' is overly restrictive. The reasonable intendment of the statute is that 'final action' refers to the matter voted upon, not final determination of, as in this case, the litigation discussed or finality in terms of exhaustion or remedies" (id. 646).
If the Board reached a "consensus" that is reflective of its final determination of an issue, I believe that minutes must be prepared that indicate its action, as well as the manner in which each member voted. I note that §87(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law states that: "Each agency shall maintain...a record of the final vote of each member in every agency proceeding in which the member votes." As such, members of public bodies cannot take action by secret ballot.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman