August 21, 2007
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.
As you are aware, I have received a variety of material from you involving issues that have arisen in the Town of Irondequoit relating to the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws.
The initial issue involves your functioning as a member of the Planning Board and a request that you recuse yourself from consideration of a certain application that was about to come before the Board “because [you] made public comments during public input at a town board meeting.” In my view, there is no valid reason to recuse yourself or to be bound by rules that offer you, as a planning board member, a lesser right to speak and express yourself than the public at large. From my perspective, it is the duty of elected and appointed officials to express themselves in order that the public can know how those officials feel about issues important to their communities. In the case of elected officials, the public cannot know whether candidates for public office, whether they are incumbents or challengers, merit support in an election unless those persons express their views on the issues. I ask rhetorically: could it be that members of Congress who represent us should recuse themselves from voting on legislation because they have expressed their views, pro or con, regarding bills that have not yet reached the floor for a vote? On the contrary, the public wants and needs to know how its leaders, even those like you chosen to serve on local boards, feel about issues important to the communities that they serve.
Second, you referred to a contention that “personnel issues” constitutes a proper subject for consideration in executive session. Based on judicial precedent, a motion identifying the subject to be considered in executive session in that manner is inadequate.
By way of background, the Open Meetings Law is based upon a presumption of openness. Stated differently, meetings of public bodies must be conducted open to the public, unless there is a basis for entry into executive session. Moreover, the 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 total 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.
Although it is used frequently, the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. Although one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters, from my perspective, the term is overused and is frequently cited in a manner that is misleading or causes unnecessary confusion. To be sure, some issues involving "personnel" may be properly considered in an executive session; others, in my view, cannot. Further, certain matters that have nothing to do with personnel may be discussed in private under the provision that is ordinarily cited to discuss personnel.
The language of the so-called "personnel" exception, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law, is limited and precise. In terms of legislative history, as originally enacted, the provision in question permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."
Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.
When §105(1)(f) may be validly asserted, it has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or "personnel issues" is insufficient, and that the motion should be based upon the specific language of §105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
It is noted that the Appellate Division has confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving the establishment and functions of a position, the Court stated that:
"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 ), and it is apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).
"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue', does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]). Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 620 NY 2d 573, 575; 209 AD 2d 55, 58 (1994)].
In short, the characterization of an issue as a “personnel issue” is inadequate, for it fails to enable the public or even members of the Board to know whether subject at hand may properly be considered during an executive session.
The remaining issue involves the fee charged by the Town for a DVD containing a reproduction of a Town Board meeting. You wrote that “some if not all of the computers at town hall have the capability to burn a DVD.” As it pertains to fees for copies of records, §87(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law states:
"Each agency shall promulgate rules and regulations in conformance with this article...and pursuant to such general rules and regulations as may be promulgated by the committee on open government in conformity with the provisions of this article, pertaining to the availability of records and procedures to be followed, including, but not limited to...
(iii) the fees for copies of records which shall not exceed twenty-five cents per photocopy not in excess of nine by fourteen inches, or the actual cost of reproducing any other record, except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute."
The regulations promulgated by the Committee state in relevant part that:
"Except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute:
(a) There shall be no fee charged for the following:
(1) inspection of records;
(2) search for records; or
(3) any certification pursuant to this Part" (21 NYCRR 1401.8)."
Based upon the foregoing, it is likely that a fee for “burning a DVD” would involve the cost of a DVD.
Lastly, although compliance with the Freedom of Information Law involves the use of public employees' time and perhaps other costs, the Court of Appeals has found that the Law is not intended to be given effect "on a cost-accounting basis", but rather that "Meeting the public's legitimate right of access to information concerning government is fulfillment of a governmental obligation, not the gift of, or waste of, public funds" [Doolan v. BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341, 347 (1979)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Town Board
Michael Leone, Town Attorney