January 23, 2006
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 information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you wrote that the Town Board in the Town of Macedon has “always required names and addresses of individuals speaking at our public hearings”, and that those details are included in minutes, which are posted on the Town’s website. You have asked whether the names and addresses should be included in the “original minutes” but remove them “from the copy on the web.”
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, while the Open Meetings Law includes provisions concerning minutes of meetings, I know of no law that specifies that there must be minutes of public hearings or that provides direction concerning their content. As you may be aware, the Open Meetings Law provides what might be characterized as minimum requirements pertaining to the content of minutes of open meetings. Subdivision (1) of §106 states that:
"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."
Based on the foregoing, minutes need not consist of a verbatim account of what is said at a meeting, and there is no requirement that minutes identify those who speak by name or by name and address.
Second, I note that §103 of the Open Meetings Law provides that meetings of public bodies are open to the "general public." As such, any member of the public, whether a resident of the Town or of another jurisdiction, would have the same right to attend. That being so, I do not believe that a member of the public can be required to identify himself or herself by name or by residence in order to attend a meeting of a public body. Further, since any person can attend, I do not believe that a public body could by rule limit the ability to speak to residents only. There are many instances in which people other than residents, such as those who may own commercial property or conduct business and who pay taxes within a given community, attend meetings and have a significant interest in the operation of a municipality. Additionally, instances have arisen in which those who would like to speak during a meeting have been reluctant to do so when they are required to identify themselves. Battered spouses and others in similar situations have contended that identifying themselves could place them in jeopardy.
In short, I do not believe that individuals can be required to identify themselves at meetings, or that if they do so, their identities must be included in minutes.
Lastly, while I do not believe that it would be contrary to law to include speakers’ names and addresses in minutes of meetings and to place those minutes on the Town’s website, I question the wisdom of doing so. 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. If there is a desire to include speakers’ identities in minutes, those portions of the minutes might be removed prior to placing the minutes on the Town’s website.
I hope that the foregoing will be useful and that I have been of assistance.