April 17, 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 indicated that you are a member of the West Monroe Town Board, which consists entirely of members of one political party. You described a series of events that involve issues arising in relation to the Open Meetings Law.
In brief, the first situation involved a gathering of three Board members who are also members of a political party committee for the purpose of conducting interviews to fill a vacancy on the Town Board. The other concerned a phone call to you from the Supervisor "asking for [your] approval" to take certain action. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Open Meetings Law applies to public bodies, such as town boards, and 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, the state’s highest court, found that any gathering of a quorum 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 Board gathers to discuss Town business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law, unless the meeting or a portion thereof is exempt from the Law.
Second, 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, including a town board, may conduct closed political caucuses, either during or separate from meetings of the public body.
However, pertinent to the situation to which you referred is the case of Buffalo News v. Buffalo Common Council [585 NYS 2d 275 (1992), which involved a political caucus held by a public body consisting solely of members of one political party. As in Humphrey, the court concentrated on the expressed legislative intent regarding the exemption for political caucuses, as well as the statement of intent appearing in §100 of the Open Meetings Law, stating that:
"In a divided legislature where a meeting is restricted to the attendance of members of one political party, regardless of quorum and majority status, perhaps by that very restriction it would be fair to assume the meeting constitutes a political caucus. However, such a conclusion cannot be drawn if the entire legislature is of one party and the stated purpose is to adopt a proposed plan to address the deficit before going public. In view of the overall importance of Article 7, any exemption must be narrowly construed so that it will not render Section 100 meaningless. Therefore, the meeting of February 8, 1992 was in violation of Article 7 of the Open Meetings Law...
"When dealing with a Legislature comprised of only one political party, it must be left to the sound discretion of honorable legislators to clearly announce the intent and purpose of future meetings and open the same accordingly consistent with the overall intent of Public Officers Law Article 7" (id., 278).
I point out that 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.
"A literal reading of Section 108, as urged by Respondent, could effectively preclude the public from any participation whatsoever in a government which is entirely controlled by one political party. Every public meeting dealing with sensitive or controversial issues could be preceded by a 'political caucus' which would have no public input, and the public meetings decisions on such issues would be a mere formality. Such interpretation would negate the Legislature's declaration in Section 100. The Legislature could not have contemplated such a result by amending Section 108 and at the same time preserving Section 100" (id., 277).
Based on the foregoing, I believe that consideration of the matter must focus on the overall thrust of the decision. To reiterate a statement in the Buffalo News decision: "any exemption must be narrowly construed so that it will not render Section 100 meaningless" (id., 278). Since all the members of the Town Board are from a single political party, based on the decision cited above, I do not believe that a majority of the members of the Board may validly conduct a closed political caucus to discuss matters of public business. When the members are discussing political party business (i.e., fund raising, party leadership, etc.), a closed political caucus may in my view be appropriately held. It appears that the gathering in question constituted a "meeting", for it involved a matter of public business, the authority of the Board to fill a vacancy in a public office.
Third, when a public body conducts a meeting, the Open Meetings Law is based on a presumption of openness. Stated differently, meetings of public bodies must be conducted in public except to the extent that an executive session may appropriately be held. Paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1) of the Open Meetings Law specify and limit the subjects that may properly be considered during an executive session.
In my view, the only provision that might have justified the holding of an executive session to discuss filling a vacancy in an elective office is §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law, which permits a public body to 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..."
Under the language quoted above, it would appear that a discussion focusing on the individual candidates could validly be considered in an executive session, for it would involve a matter leading to the appointment of a particular person. Nevertheless, in the only decision of which I am aware that dealt directly with the propriety of holding an executive to discuss filling a vacancy in an elective office, the court found that there was no basis for entry into executive session. In determining that an executive session could not properly have been held, the court stated that:
"...respondents' reliance on the portion of Section 105(1)(f) which states that a Board in executive session may discuss the 'appointment...of a particular person...' is misplaced. In this Court's opinion, given the liberality with which the law's requirements of openness are to be interpreted (Holden v. Board of Trustees of Cornell Univ., 80 AD2d 378) and given the obvious importance of protecting the voter's franchise this section should be interpreted as applying only to employees of the municipality and not to appointments to fill the unexpired terms of elected officials. Certainly, the matter of replacing elected officials, should be subject to public input and scrutiny" (Gordon v. Village of Monticello, Supreme Court, Sullivan County, January 7, 1994), modified on other grounds, 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].
Based on the foregoing, notwithstanding its language, the court in Gordon held that §105(1)(f) could not be asserted to conduct an executive session. I point out that the Appellate Division affirmed the substance of the lower court decision but did not refer to the passage quoted above. Whether other courts would uniformly concur with the finding enunciated in that passage is conjectural. Nevertheless, since it is the only decision that has dealt squarely with the issue at hand, I believe that it is appropriate to consider Gordon as an influential precedent.
Lastly, in my view, the Board may validly conduct a meeting or carry out its authority only at a meeting during which a majority of its members has physically convened or during which a majority has convened by means of videoconferencing, and even then, only when reasonable notice is given to all of the members.
There is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that would preclude members of a public body from conferring individually, by telephone, via mail or e-mail. However, a series of communications between individual members or telephone calls among the members which results in a collective decision, a meeting held by means of a telephone conference or series of telephone calls, or a vote taken by mail or e-mail would in my opinion be inconsistent with law.
Based on relatively recent legislation, I believe that voting and action by a public body may be carried out only at a meeting during which a quorum has physically convened, or during a meeting held by videoconference. It is noted that the Open Meetings Law pertains to public bodies, and §102(2) defines the phrase "public body" to mean:
"...any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body."
As amended, §102(1) of the Open Meetings Law defines the term "meeting" to mean "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business, including the use of videoconferencing for attendance and participation by the members of the public body." Based upon an ordinary dictionary definition of "convene", that term means:
"1. to summon before a tribunal;
2. to cause to assemble syn see 'SUMMON'" (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Copyright 1965).
In view of that definition and others, I believe that a meeting, i.e., the "convening" of a public body, involves the physical coming together of at least a majority of the total membership of such a body, i.e., the Planning Board, or a convening that occurs through videoconferencing. I point out, too, that §103(c) of the Open Meetings Law states that "A public body that uses videoconferencing to conduct its meetings shall provide an opportunity to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates."
The amendments to the Open Meetings Law in my view clearly indicate that there are only two ways in which a public body may validly conduct a meeting. Any other means of conducting a meeting, i.e., by telephone, by mail, or by e-mail, would be inconsistent with law.
As indicated above, the definition of the phrase "public body" refers to entities that are required to conduct public business by means of a quorum. The term "quorum" is defined in §41 of the General Construction Law, which has been in effect since 1909. The cited provision, which was also amended to include language concerning videoconferencing, states that:
"Whenever three of 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."
Based on the foregoing, again, a valid meeting may occur only when a majority of the total membership of a public body, a quorum, has "gathered together in the presence of each other or through the use of videoconferencing." Only when a quorum has convened in the manner described in §41 of the General Construction Law would a public body have the authority to carry out its powers and duties. Consequently, it is my opinion that a public body may not take action or vote by means of telephone calls or e-mail. Moreover, §41 requires that reasonable notice be given to all the members. If that does not occur, even if a majority is present, I do not believe that a valid meeting could be held or that action could validly be taken.
In the only decision dealing with a vote taken by phone, the court found the vote to be a nullity. In Cheevers v. Town of Union (Supreme Court, Broome County, September 3, 1998), which cited and relied upon an opinion rendered by this office, the court stated that:
"...there is a question as to whether the series of telephone calls among the individual members constitutes a meeting which would be subject to the Open Meetings Law. A meeting is defined as ‘the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business’ (Public Officers Law §102). Although ‘not every assembling of the members of a public body was intended to fall within the scope of the Open Meetings Law [such as casual encounters by members], ***informal conferences, agenda sessions and work sessions to invoke the provisions of the statute when a quorum is present and when the topics for discussion and decision are such as would otherwise arise at a regular meeting’ (Matter of Goodson Todman Enter. v. City of Kingston Common Council, 153 AD2d 103, 105). Peripheral discussions concerning an item of public business are subject to the provisions of the statute in the same manner was formal votes (see, Matter of Orange County Publs. v. Council of City of Newburgh, 60 AD2d 309, 415 Affd 45 NY2d 947).
"The issue was the Town’s policy concerning tax assessment reductions, clearly a matter of public business. There was no physical gathering, but four members of the five member board discussed the issue in a series of telephone calls. As a result, a quorum of members of the Board were ‘present’ and determined to publish the Dear Resident article. The failure to actually meet in person or have a telephone conference in order to avoid a ‘meeting’ circumvents the intent of the Open Meetings Law (see e.g., 1998 Advisory Opns Committee on Open Government 2877). This court finds that telephonic conferences among the individual members constituted a meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Law..."
I direct your attention to the legislative declaration of the Open Meetings Law, §100, which states in part that:
"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.
Based on the foregoing, the Open Meetings Law is intended to provide the public with the right to observe the performance of public officials in their deliberations. That intent cannot be realized if members of a public body conduct public business as a body or vote by phone, by mail, or by e-mail.
In sum, I concur with your understanding that the Board may not take action by means of a series of phone contacts or through voting by phone.
I hope that I have been of assistance.