September 16, 2005
FROM: Camille Jobin-Davis, Assistant 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 e-mail communication of July 16, 2005 in which you express concerns about a meeting of various persons at the home of a Town Board member and request an advisory opinion. The advisory jurisdiction of the Committee on Open Government is limited to matters relating to open government statutes. Therefore, the following commentary will be limited to the statutory responsibilities of elected officials imposed by the Open Meetings Law.
First in my view, a gathering at the home of a Town Board member or any other similar gathering in which a majority of the Board discusses Town business would constitute a "meeting" required to be conducted in accordance with the Open Meetings Law.
In this regard, it is noted that the Open Meetings Law pertains to meetings of public bodies, e.g., town boards, and that the courts have construed the term "meeting" [§102(1)] expansively. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, held that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business constitutes a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law, 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, Division of Ottoway Newspapers, Inc. 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 form action. Formal acts have always been matters of public records 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).
With respect to social gatherings or 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. However, if, by design, the members of a public body seek to meet after a public hearing, to socialize and to discuss public business, formally or otherwise, I believe that a gathering of a majority would trigger the application of the Open Meetings Law, for such gatherings would, according to judicial interpretations, constitute "meetings" subject to the Law.
If indeed the sole purpose of a gathering is social in nature, the Open Meetings Law, in my view, would not apply. However, if during the social gathering, a majority of the members of a public body begin to discuss the business of that body, collectively as a group, I believe that they should recognize that they are conducting public business without notice to the public and immediately cease their discussion of public business. Moreover, in that situation, I would conjecture that a court would determine that the public body would have acted in a manner inconsistent with law.
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. Regardless of the location or the timing of the meeting, since a session held by a majority of a public body is a "meeting", it would have the same responsibilities in relation to openness, notice and the taking of minutes as in the case of a formal meeting.
Finally, the Open Meetings Law does not specify where a public body must conduct its meetings. However, the Law does provide direction concerning the site of meetings. Section 103(b) of the Law states that:
"Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free physical access to the physically handicapped, as defined in subdivision five of section fifty of the public buildings law."
Based upon the language quoted above, the Open Meetings Law, in my opinion, imposes no obligation upon a public body to construct a new facility or to renovate an existing facility to permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. However, I believe that the law does impose a responsibility upon a public body to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. Therefore, if, for example, the Board has the capacity to hold its meetings in a first floor room that is accessible to handicapped persons rather than a second floor room, I believe that the meetings should be held in the room that is most likely to accommodate the needs of people with handicapping conditions.
From my perspective, a member's home would generally not be an appropriate location for a meeting of a public body. Aside from the issue of barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons, a home is not a public facility, and many have suggested that entry into a home to attend a meeting involves a sense of intrusion or intimidation. In my view, every law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives effect to its intent. Holding a meeting at a member's home would, in my opinion, be unreasonable and inconsistent with the intent of the law.
I hope I have been of assistance in this matter.
cc: Town Board