March 2, 2006
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 January 13, 2006 request for an advisory opinion concerning the application of the Open Meetings Law to a recent meeting of the Common Council of the City of Little Falls. Based on your correspondence and the article you attached from The Evening Times, it appears that in the course of its regularly scheduled meeting, the entire Common Council, which consists of seven democrats and one republican, entered into a "caucus".
In this regard, by way of background, the definition of "meeting" [see Open Meetings Law, §102(1)] has been broadly interpreted by the courts. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the Court of Appeals found that any gathering of a majority of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business is a "meeting" that must be conducted open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to have 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, such as "agenda sessions," 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.).
Based upon the direction given by the courts, when a majority of the Common Council is present to discuss City business, such a gathering, in our opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law, unless the meeting or a portion thereof is exempt from the Law.
With respect to the ability to exclude the public, the Open Meetings Law provides two vehicles under which a public body may meet in private. One is the executive session, a portion of an open meeting that may be closed to the public in accordance with §105 of the Open Meetings Law. The other arises under §108 of the Open Meetings Law, which contains three exemptions from the Law. When a discussion falls within the scope of an exemption, the provisions of the Open Meetings Law do not apply.
Since the Open Meetings Law became effective in 1977, it has contained an exemption concerning political committees, conferences and caucuses. Again, when a matter is exempted from the Open Meetings Law, the provisions of that statute do not apply. Questions concerning the scope of the so-called "political caucus" exemption have continually arisen, and until 1985, judicial decisions indicated that the exemption pertained only to discussions of political party business. Concurrently, in those decisions, it was held that when a majority of a legislative body met to discuss public business, such a gathering constituted a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law, even if those in attendance represented a single political party [see e.g., Sciolino v. Ryan, 81 AD 2d 475 (1981)].
Those decisions, however, were essentially reversed by the enactment of an amendment to the Open Meetings Law in 1985. Section 108(2)(a) of the Law now states that exempted from its provisions are: "deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses." Further, §108(2)(b) states that:
"for purposes of this section, the deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses means a private meeting of members of the senate or assembly of the state of New York, or the legislative body of a county, city, town or village, who are members or adherents of the same political party, without regard to (I) the subject matter under discussion, including discussions of public business, (ii) the majority or minority status of such political committees, conferences and caucuses or (iii) whether such political committees, conferences and caucuses invite staff or guests to participate in their deliberations..."
Based on the foregoing, in general, either the majority or minority party members of a legislative body may conduct closed political caucuses, either during or separate from meetings of the public body.
With regard to the situation that you described, if the democrat members who serve on the Council constituting a majority of the Council’s membership gather to discuss public business with a republican member, because there would be members of two political parties, we do not believe that the gathering could be characterized as a political caucus that is exempt from the Open Meetings Law; on the contrary, that kind of gathering would in our view constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. A political caucus by definition is in our opinion restricted to members or adherents of a single political party. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines caucus as:
"a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction usu. to select candidates or to decide on policy."
If the gathering described in your letter and the article were attended by council members from two political parties, we do not believe that a republican legislator could be characterized as a "guest" or that they can be described as political caucuses exempt from the Open Meetings Law. Again, such meetings would appear to be "meetings" that fall within the coverage of that statute.
In a variety of decisions, the courts have determined that provisions authorizing the exclusion of the public from meetings of public bodies should be construed narrowly. Notable in the context of the situation described is Buffalo News v. Buffalo Common Council [585 NYS 2d 275 (1992), which involved the interpretation of the exemption regarding political caucuses, the court concentrated on the expressed legislative intent appearing in §100 of the Open Meetings Law, stating that: "In view of the overall importance of Article 7, any exemption must be narrowly construed so that it will not render Section 100 meaningless" (id., 278).
We believe that the thrust of the decision indicates that, in consideration of the intent of the Open Meetings Law, the exemption concerning political caucuses should be narrowly construed. Based on its intent, if a member registered to a political party different from that of the majority joins the majority to discuss public business, again, it is our view that the gathering is no longer a political caucus, but rather a "meeting." The decision continually referred to the term "meeting" and the deliberative process, and the language of the decision in many ways is analogous to that of the Appellate Division in Orange County Publications, supra. Specifically, it was stated in Buffalo News that:
"The Court of Appeals in Orange County (supra) also declared: 'The purpose and intention of the State Legislature in the present context are interpreted as expressed in the language of the statute and its preamble.' The legislative intent, therefore, expressed in Section 108, must be read in conjunction with the Declaration of Legislative Policy of Article 7 as set forth in its preamble, Section 100.
"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 commonwealth will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it" (id., 277).
With respect to the enforcement of the Open Meetings Law, and whether "the election of the Council President was contrary to law", we note that while it is our opinion that purported action taken outside the context of a meeting could be considered a nullity, the election was conducted after the members had reconvened at the public meeting.
Section 107(1) of the Law states in part that:
"Any aggrieved person shall have standing to enforce the provisions of this article against a public body by the commencement of a proceeding pursuant to article seventy-eight of the civil practice law and rules, and/or an action for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. In any such action or proceeding, the court shall have the power, in its discretion, upon good cause shown, to declare any action or part thereof taken in violation of this article void in whole or in part."
However, the same provision states further that:
"An unintentional failure to fully comply with the notice provisions required by this article shall not alone be grounds for invalidating any action taken at a meeting of a public body."
As such, when a legal challenge is initiated relating to a failure to provide notice, a key issue is whether a failure to comply with the notice requirements imposed by the Open Meetings Law was "unintentional".
On behalf of the Committee on Open Government, we hope this is helpful to you.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis
cc: Common Council