October 31, 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.
We are in receipt of your July 31, 2005 request for "input" regarding commentary published in the Amherst Record concerning a certain meeting conducted by the Town Supervisor.
In her July 29, 2005 opinion piece, Carlene Peterson describes a meeting which took place at the Supervisor’s invitation concerning an investigation of criminal activity at the town’s wastewater treatment facility, at which the Chief of Police, various attorneys working for the Town, and two Town board members were present. She observed, "[b]y only inviting two council members, there wasn’t a quorum. Without a quorum, there’s no need to alert the press." And further, "it could have been about a public employee, which means the meeting would have been held in closed session."
The Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions concerning the application of the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law. Accordingly, to the extent that the Open Meetings Law may have applied to the actions described by Ms. Petersen, we offer the following comments.
The Open Meetings Law is clearly intended to open the deliberative process to the public and provide the right to know how public bodies reach their decisions. As stated in §100 of the Law, its 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. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it."
Moreover, it is emphasized that the Open Meetings Law 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)].
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.).
More recently it was held that "a planned informal conference" or a "briefing session" held by a quorum of a public body would constitute a "meeting" subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law [see Goodson Todman v. Kingston, 153 Ad 2d 103, 105 (1990)].
Based upon the terms of the Open Meetings Law and its judicial interpretation, if a majority of board members gather at the request of the Supervisor to conduct public business, any such gathering would, in our opinion, constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. Further, when there is an intent to conduct a meeting, the gathering must be preceded by notice given pursuant to §104 of the Open Meetings Law, convened open to the public and conducted in public as required by the Open Meetings Law.
As a general matter, we believe Ms. Peterson is correct; we we do not believe that the Open Meetings Law applies unless a quorum is present. Even when a meeting is scheduled and reasonable notice is given to all the members in a manner consistent with the requirements of §41 of the General Construction Law, but less than a majority attends, the gathering would not constitute a "meeting" and the public would have no right to attend. Section 41 of the General Construction Law, entitled "Quorum and majority", states in relevant part that:
"Whenever three or more public officers are given any power or authority, or three or more persons are charged with any public duty to be performed or exercised by them jointly or as a board or similar body, a majority of the whole number of such persons or officers, gathered together in the presence of each other or through the use of videoconferencing, at a meeting duly held at a time fixed by law, or by any by-law duly adopted by such board of body, or at any duly adjourned meeting of such meeting, or at any meeting duly held upon reasonable notice to all of them, shall constitute a quorum and not less than a majority of the whole number may perform and exercise such power, authority or duty. For the purpose of this provision the words 'whole number' shall be construed to mean the total number which the board, commission, body or other group of persons or officers would have were there no vacancies and were none of the persons or officers disqualified from acting."
The issue in the context of your inquiry involves the application of the Open Meetings Law to a situation in which the Supervisor invited only two Board members to conduct public business. Since the Town Board consists of seven members no quorum was present, and the Open Meetings Law would not have applied.
When there is an intent to ensure the presence of less than a quorum at any given time in order to evade the Open Meetings Law, there is a judicial decision that infers that such activity would contravene that statute. As stated in Tri-Village Publishers v. St. Johnsville Board of Education:
"It has been held that, in order for a gathering of members of a public body to constitute a 'meeting' for purposes of the Open Meetings Law, a quorum must be present (Matter of Britt v County of Niagara, 82 AD2d 65, 68-69). In the instant case, there was never a quorum present at any of the private meetings prior to the regular meetings. Thus, none of these constituted a 'meeting' which was required to be conducted in public pursuant to the Open Meetings Law.
"We recognize that a series of less-than-quorum meetings on a particular subject which together involve at least a quorum of the public body could be used by a public body to thwart the purposes of the Open Meetings Law...However, as noted by Special Term, the record in this case contains no evidence to indicate that the members of respondent engaged in any attempt to evade the requirements of the Open Meetings Law" [110 AD 2d 932, 933-934 (1985)].
In Tri-Village, the Court found no evidence indicating an intent to circumvent the Open Meetings Law when a series of meetings were held, each involving less than a quorum of a board of education. Nevertheless, as we interpret the passage quoted above, when there is an intent to evade the Law by ensuring that less than a quorum is present, such an intent would violate the Open Meetings Law. If there is or has been an intent to circumvent the Open Meetings Law in the context of the situation of your concern, it is likely that a court would find that the Open Meetings Law has been infringed.
In regard to Ms. Peterson’s observation about a "closed" meeting, or an executive session, we agree with her contention that the Supervisor "would have had to alert the press a closed meeting was taking place", and we offer the following comments to elaborate.
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..."
In consideration of this voting requirement, 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 our 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. 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 indicate that there is intent to enter into an executive session by means of a vote to be taken during a meeting.
Although it is used as a ground for entering into executive session frequently, the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. It is true that one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters. From our perspective, however, the term is overused and is frequently cited in a manner that is misleading or causes unnecessary confusion. To be sure, some issues involving "personnel" may be properly considered in an executive session; others, in our view, cannot. Further, certain matters that have nothing to do with personnel may be discussed in private under the provision that is ordinarily cited to discuss personnel.
The language of the so-called "personnel" exception, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law, is limited and precise. In terms of legislative history, as originally enacted, the provision in question permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."
Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.
To attempt to clarify the Law, the Committee recommended a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law, several of which became effective on October 1, 1979. The recommendation made by the Committee regarding §105(1)(f) was enacted and states that a public body may enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation..." (emphasis added).
Due to the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), we believe that a discussion of "personnel" may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when at least one of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) is considered.
When a discussion concerns matters of policy, such as the manner in which public money will be expended or allocated, the functions of a department, the creation or elimination of positions or matters relating to the budget, we do not believe that §105(1)(f) could be asserted, even though the discussion may relate to "personnel". For example, if a discussion of possible layoffs relates to positions and whether those positions should be retained or abolished, the discussion would involve the means by which public monies would be allocated. In short, in order to enter into an executive session pursuant to §105(1)(f), we believe that the discussion must focus on a particular person (or persons) in relation to a topic listed in that provision. As stated judicially, "it would seem that under the statute matters related to personnel generally or to personnel policy should be discussed in public for such matters do not deal with any particular person" (Doolittle v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Chemung County, October 20, 1981).
It has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" is inadequate, and that the motion should be based upon the specific language of §105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in our opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
I trust this meets with your request. Should you have any further questions, please contact
Camille S. Jobin-Davis