August 8, 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 concerning meetings of the Utica Urban Renewal Agency, particularly the location of its meetings, its entry into executive session to discuss "sensitive items", and a refusal to provide access to minutes and other records. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, §553 of the General Municipal Law states in subdivision (2) that an urban renewal agency "shall be a corporate governmental agency, constituting a public benefit corporation." A public benefit corporation is a kind of public corporation (see General Construction Law, §66). Therefore, an urban renewal agency is an "agency" that falls within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law [Public Officers Law, §86(3)], and a "public body" subject to the Open Meetings Law [Public Officers Law, §102(2)]. Subdivision (3) of §553 states that "A majority of the members of an [urban renewal] agency shall constitute a quorum. As you are aware, §616 of the General Municipal established the Utica Urban Renewal Agency (hereafter "the Agency").
Second, although the Open Meetings Law does not specify where meetings must be held, §103(a) of the Law states in part that "Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public..." Further, the intent of the Open Meetings Law is clearly stated in §100 as follows:
"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."
As such, the Open Meetings Law confers a right upon the public to attend meetings of public bodies and to observe the performance of public officials who serve on such bodies.
From my perspective, every provision of law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. In my opinion, if it is known in advance of a meeting that a larger crowd is likely to attend than the meeting location will accommodate, and if a larger facility is available, it would be reasonable and consistent with the intent of the Law to hold the meeting in the larger facility. Conversely, assuming the same facts, I believe that it would be unreasonable to hold a meeting in a facility that would not accommodate those interested in attending.
The preceding paragraph appeared in an advisory opinion rendered in 1993 and was relied upon in Crain v. Reynolds (Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, August 12, 1998). In that decision, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York conducted a meeting in a room that could not accommodate those interested in attending, even though other facilities were available that would have accommodated those persons. The court in Crain granted the petitioners’ motion for an order precluding the Board of Trustees from implementing a resolution adopted at the meeting at issue until certain conditions were met to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
It is also noted that §103(b) of the Open Meetings Law states that:
"Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free physical access to the physically handicapped, as defined in subdivision five of section fifty or the public buildings law."
Based upon the foregoing, there is no obligation upon a public body to construct a new facility or to renovate an existing facility to permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. However, I believe that the Law does impose a responsibility upon a public body to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. Therefore, if, for example, the Agency has the capacity to hold its meetings in a room that is accessible to handicapped persons, I believe that the meetings should be held in the room that is most likely to accommodate the needs of those people.
Third, it is emphasized that every meeting of a public body, such as the Agency, must be convened as an open meeting, for §102(3) of the Open Meetings Law defines the phrase "executive session" to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded. That being so, it is clear that an executive session is not separate and distinct from an open meeting, but rather that it is a part of an open meeting. Moreover, the Open Meetings Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an executive session. 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..."
Based on the foregoing, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or subjects to be discussed and it must be carried by majority vote of a public body's membership before such a session may validly be held. The ensuing provisions of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may appropriately be considered during an executive session. Therefore, a public body may not conduct an executive session to discuss the subject of its choice.
Next, the Open Meetings Law contains direction concerning minutes of meetings and provides what might be viewed as minimum requirements pertaining to their contents. Specifically, §106 states that:
"1. 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.
2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.
3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."
In view of the foregoing, as a general rule, a public body may take action during a properly convened executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)]. If action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must generally be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law. If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared.
I point out that minutes of executive sessions need not include information that may be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law. From my perspective, when a public body makes a final determination during an executive session, that determination will, in most instances, be public. For example, although a discussion to hire or fire a particular employee could clearly be discussed during an executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)(f), a determination to hire or fire that person would be recorded in minutes and would be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law. On other hand, if a public body votes to initiate a disciplinary proceeding against a public employee, minutes reflective of its action would not have include reference to or identify the person, for the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would result in an unwarranted personal privacy such as unsubstantiated charges or allegations [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(b)].
In a somewhat related vein, I point out that §87(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law provides that:
"Each agency shall maintain:
(a) a record of the final vote of each member in every agency proceeding in which the member votes..."
Based upon the foregoing, when a final vote is taken by an "agency" subject to the Freedom of Information Law [see §86(3), a record must be prepared that indicates the manner in which each member who voted cast his or her vote. Ordinarily, records of votes will appear in minutes.
In terms of the rationale of §87(3)(a), it appears that the State Legislature in precluding secret ballot voting sought to ensure that the public has the right to know how its representatives may have voted individually concerning particular issues. Although the Open Meetings Law does not refer specifically to the manner in which votes are taken or recorded, I believe that the thrust of §87(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law is consistent with the Legislative Declaration that appears at the beginning of the Open Meetings Law and states 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. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants."
Moreover, in an Appellate Division decision that was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, it was found that "The use of a secret ballot for voting purposes was improper." In so holding, the Court stated that: "When action is taken by formal vote at open or executive sessions, the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law both require open voting and a record of the manner in which each member voted [Public Officers Law §87[a]; §106, " Smithson v. Ilion Housing Authority, 130 AD 2d 965, 967 (1987); aff'd 72 NY 2d 1034 (1988)].
Lastly, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to all records kept by or for a government agency and is based on a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (I) of the Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Utica Urban Renewal Agency