September 19, 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 facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you indicated that you serve as a member of the Patchogue-Medford School District Board of Education. You have requested "an opinion on four school board members (1- President and 3 newly elected) attending a social gathering at a community member’s house where were so called conversations on how to remove the Superintendent and negotiation with an employee involved in a 3020 proceeding."
In this regard, it is unclear whether the three "newly elected" persons had yet become members of the Board. If they were not yet members of the Board, the Open Meetings Law clearly would not have applied. On the other hand, since the Board consists of seven members, if all four, including the three newly elected persons, were members of the Board when the conversations occurred, the Open Meetings Law might have been implicated.
In this regard, that statute pertains to meetings of public bodies, such as boards of education, and the courts have construed the term "meeting" [§102(1)] expansively. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, held that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business constitutes a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law, 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, Division of Ottoway Newspapers, Inc. v. Council of the City of Newburgh, 60 AD 2d 409, aff'd 45 NY 2d 947 (1978)]. In my opinion, inherent in the definition of "meeting" is the notion of intent. If a majority of a public body gathers in order to conduct public business collectively, as a body, I believe that such a gathering would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. In the decision cited earlier, the Court affirmed a decision rendered by the Appellate Division that dealt specifically with so-called "work sessions" and similar gatherings during which there was merely an intent to discuss, but no intent to take formal action. In so holding, the court stated:
"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 form action. Formal acts have always been matters of public records 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).
With respect to social gatherings or chance meetings, it was found that:
"We agree that not every assembling of the members of a public body was intended to be included within the definition. Clearly casual encounters by members do not fall within the open meetings statutes. But an informal 'conference' or 'agenda session' does, for it permits 'the crystallization of secret decisions to point just short of ceremonial acceptance'" (id. at 416).
In view of the foregoing, if members of a public body meet by chance or at a social gathering, for example, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would apply, for there would be no intent to conduct public business, collectively, as a body. However, if, by design, the members of a public body seek to meet to socialize and to discuss public business, formally or otherwise, I believe that a gathering of a majority would trigger the application of the Open Meetings Law, for such gatherings would, according to judicial interpretations, constitute "meetings" subject to the Law.
If indeed the sole purpose of a gathering is social in nature, the Open Meetings Law, in my view, would not apply. However, if during the social gathering, a majority of the members of a public body begin to discuss the business of that body, collectively as a group, I believe that they should recognize that they are conducting public business without notice to the public and immediately cease their discussion of public business. Moreover, in that situation, I would conjecture that a court would determine that the public body would have acted in a manner inconsistent with law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.