July 20, 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.
I have received your letter in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning a "policy-making meeting of four town board members" that was "closed to the public."
According to your letter, four members of the Carmel Town Board were invited by a developer to a meeting held in a restaurant. You wrote that "the four board members at first denied that they had held a secret meeting, but eventually admitted, in the public forum, that they had attended the meeting." It is your view that the gathering in question "violated the Open Meetings Law" and you asked whether I concur.
In this regard, the Committee on Open Government is authorized to offer advice and opinions concerning the Open Meetings Law. Neither the Committee nor its staff is empowered to render determinations or findings that "violations" of law occurred; only a court is empowered to do so. Nevertheless, based on the information that you provided, I believe that the gathering in question constituted a "meeting" falling within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law and the that Board failed to comply with that statute. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, 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."
Second, 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, 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 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)].
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 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.).
It has also been 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, when a majority of the Board gathers to conduct public business, any such gathering would, in my opinion, constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings Law, a copy of this opinion will be sent to the Town Board.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Town Board