March 7, 2007
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 and hope that you will accept my apologies for the delay in response. You have raised a variety of questions pertaining to the Rushford Lake Recreation District (“the District”) and its Board of Commissioners (“the Board”) relating to the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, in my view, the Board is a public body required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. That statute is applicable 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."
Having reviewed Chapter 78 of the Laws of 1981, the Board is, according to §7, administered by a board consisting of five commissioners; paragraph (f) indicates that three members constitute a quorum, and §11 details the Board’s powers and duties, which involve conducting public business and performing a governmental function.
Similarly, I believe that the District is subject to the Freedom of Information Law, which applies to agencies and defines “agency” in §86(3) to include:
"...any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
The District is a kind of public corporation (see General Construction Law, §66), and based on §2 of Chapter 78 and the ensuing provisions, it performs a governmental function for the towns of Rushford and Caneadea.
Second, 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 or vote held by means of a telephone conference, by mail or e-mail would in my opinion be inconsistent with law.
From my perspective, 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.
Section102(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 Commission, 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 provisions in the Open Meetings Law concerning videoconferencing are newly enacted (Chapter 289 of the Laws of 2000), and in my view, those amendments 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 conference, by mail, or by e-mail, would be inconsistent with law.
As indicated earlier, 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.” Moreover, 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 e-mail.
Conducting a vote or taking action via e-mail would, in my view, be equivalent to voting by means of a series of telephone calls, and 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...”
If a majority of the members of the Board engage in “instant e-mail” or communicate in a chat room in which the communications are equivalent to a conversation, it is likely that a court would determine that communications of that nature would run afoul of the Open Meetings Law. In essence, the majority in that case would be conducting a meeting without the public’s knowledge and without the ability of the public to “observe the performance of public officials” as required by the Open Meetings Law (see §100).
Third, there is no reference in the Open Meetings Law to the ability to enter into executive session to discuss “legal matters.” Here I note that 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..."
As such, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or subjects to be discussed, and the motion 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.
The provision most analogous to “legal matters” is §105(1)(d), which permits a public body to enter into executive session to discuss “proposed, pending or current litigation.” in construing the exception concerning litigation, it has been held that:
"The purpose of paragraph d is "to enable is to enable a public body to discuss pending litigation privately, without baring its strategy to its adversary through mandatory public meetings' (Matter of Concerned Citizens to Review Jefferson Val. Mall v. Town Bd. Of Town of Yorktown, 83 AD 2d 612, 613, 441 NYS 2d 292). The belief of the town's attorney that a decision adverse to petitioner 'would almost certainly lead to litigation' does not justify the conducting of this public business in an executive session. To accept this argument would be to accept the view that any public body could bar the public from its meetings simply be expressing the fear that litigation may result from actions taken therein. Such a view would be contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the exception" [Weatherwax v. Town of Stony Point, 97 AD 2d 840, 841 (1983)].
Based upon the foregoing, I believe that the exception is intended to permit a public body to discuss its litigation strategy behind closed doors, rather than issues that might eventually result in litigation.
With regard to the sufficiency of a motion to discuss litigation, it has been held that:
"It is insufficient to merely regurgitate the statutory language; to wit, 'discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation'. This boilerplate recitation does not comply with the intent of the statute. To validly convene an executive session for discussion of proposed, pending or current litigation, the public body must identify with particularity the pending, proposed or current litigation to be discussed during the executive session" [Daily Gazette Co. , Inc. v. Town Board, Town of Cobleskill, 44 NYS 2d 44, 46 (1981), emphasis added by court].
The emphasis in the passage quoted above on the word “the” indicates that when the discussion relates to litigation that has been initiated, the motion must name the litigation. For example, a proper motion might be: “I move to enter into executive session to discuss our litigation strategy in the case of the XYZ Company v. the District.” If the Board seeks to discuss its litigation strategy in relation to a person or entity that it intends to sue, and if premature identification of that person or entity could adversely affect the interests of the District and its residents, it has been suggested that the motion need not identify that person or entity, but that it should clearly indicate that the discussion will involve the litigation strategy. Only by means of that kind of description can the public know that the subject matter may justifiably be considered during an executive session.
Fourth, §106 106 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to minutes of meetings and 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, it is clear in my opinion that minutes of open meetings must be prepared and made available "within two weeks of the date of such meeting."
Significantly, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law or any other statute of which I am aware that requires that minutes be approved. Nevertheless, as a matter of practice or policy, many public bodies approve minutes of their meetings. In the event that minutes have not been approved, to comply with the Open Meetings Law, it has consistently been advised that minutes be prepared and made available within two weeks, and that if the minutes have not been approved, they may be marked "unapproved", "draft" or "preliminary", for example. By so doing within the requisite time limitations, the public can generally know what transpired at a meeting; concurrently, the public is effectively notified that the minutes are subject to change. If minutes have been prepared within less than two weeks, again, I believe that those unapproved minutes would be available as soon as they exist, and that they may be marked in the manner described above.
I point out that when a public body conducts an executive session and merely engages in a discussion but takes no action, there is no obligation of prepare minutes of that session. If, however, action is taken, as indicated in §106, minutes reflective of the nature of the action taken, the date and the vote must be prepared and made available in accordance with the Freedom of Information Law within one week.
You asked whether a motion must be made to authorize members of the public to join the Board in an executive session. Pertinent is §105(2) of the Open Meetings Law, which provides that: “Attendance at an executive session shall be permitted to any member of the public body and any other persons authorized by the public body.” Therefore, the only people who have the right to attend executive sessions are the members of the public body. A public body may, however, authorize others to attend an executive session. While the Open Meetings Law does not describe the criteria that should be used to determine which persons other than members of a public body might properly attend an executive session, I believe that every law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be carried out in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. Typically, those persons other than members of public bodies who are authorized to attend are the clerk, the public body’s attorney, the superintendent in the case of a board of education, or a person who has some special knowledge, expertise or performs a function that relates to the subject of the executive session.
If there is a dispute among the members concerning the attendance of a person other than a member of the Board at an executive session, I believe that the Board could resolve the matter by adopting or rejecting a motion by a member to permit or reject the attendance by a non-member at an executive session.
I note that in Jae v. Board of Education of Pelham Union Free School District (Supreme Court, Westchester County, July 28, 2004), it was held that there is no requirement that a motion be made to authorize the presence of persons other than members of a public body at an executive session. The decision states that:
“..the Petitioners’ contention that the Board of Education must specifically identify any individuals invited to attend executive sessions of the Board, is not supported by law. The Public Officers Law specifically prescribes the manner and method by as well as the purposes for which a public body may enter executive session. The requirements include a motion on the public record; ‘...identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered,...’ (Public Officers Law §105). This section of the law specifically does not require that any individuals invited to attend the meeting be set forth in the motion to go into executive session. The language set forth above is also in sharp contrast to the language describing who may attend executive sessions which simply states: ‘[a]ttendance at an executive session shall be permitted to any member of the public body and any other persons authorized by the public body.’ (Public Officers Law §105). If the legislature had intended that the identities of those attending executive sessions be memorialized in the public records of the public body’s meetings, the legislature wuld [sic] have included the necessary language in sub-section 1 of the statute or sub-section 2 of the statute would have included language similar to that contained in sub-section1. Therefore, the Court agrees with the Respondents that they are not obligated to include the identities of all individuals attending executive sessions of the Board of Education in the motion authorizing the executive session.”
With respect to the enforcement of the Open Meetings Law, §107(1) states in relevant 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.”
In addition, subdivision (2) authorizes a court to award attorney’s fees to the successful party.
Lastly, as indicated earlier, the District in my view clearly constitutes an agency subject to the Freedom of Information Law. When a request for records is made, that statute provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied...”
It is noted that new language was added to that provision on May 3, 2005 (Chapter 22, Laws of 2005) stating that:
“If circumstances prevent disclosure to the person requesting the record or records within twenty business days from the date of the acknowledgement of the receipt of the request, the agency shall state, in writing, both the reason for the inability to grant the request within twenty business days and a date certain within a reasonable period, depending on the circumstances, when the request will be granted in whole or in part.”
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access in writing, or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date within twenty business days indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied. However, if it is known that circumstances prevent the agency from granting access within twenty business days, or if the agency cannot grant access by the approximate date given and needs more than twenty business days to grant access, it must provide a written explanation of its inability to do so and a specific date by which it will grant access. That date must be reasonable in consideration of the circumstances of the request.
The amendments clearly are intended to prohibit agencies from unnecessarily delaying disclosure. They are not intended to permit agencies to wait until the fifth business day following the receipt of a request and then twenty additional business days to determine rights of access, unless it is reasonable to do so based upon “the circumstances of the request.” From my perspective, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, when records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
In a judicial decision concerning the reasonableness of a delay in disclosure that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office concerning reasonable grounds for delaying disclosure, it was held that:
“The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL”(Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001).
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time beyond the approximate date of less than twenty business days given in its acknowledgement, if it acknowledges that a request has been received, but has failed to grant access by the specific date given beyond twenty business days, or if the specific date given is unreasonable, a request may be considered to have been constructively denied [see §89(4)(a)]. In such a circumstance, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a), which states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
Section 89(4)(b) was also amended, and it states that a failure to determine an appeal within ten business days of the receipt of an appeal constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules.
I note that on August 16, 2006, legislation became effective that broadens the authority of the courts to award attorney’s fees when government agencies fail to comply with the Freedom of Information Law (S. 7011-A, Chapter 492). Under the amendments, when a person initiates a judicial proceeding under the Freedom of Information Law and substantially prevails, a court has the discretionary authority to award costs and reasonable attorney’s fees when the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access to records, or when the agency failed to comply with the time limits for responding to a request.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of open government laws, copies of this response will be sent to the Board.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Rushford Lake Recreation District Board