December 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.
I have received your inquiry in which you asked whether “committee meetings of Library boards need to be open to the public and advertised if no action will be take place other than recommendations to the entire board at a later time and in a public forum.”
Assuming that the committee consists of members of library board of a governmental entity, I believe that the gathering that you described would be subject to the requirements imposed by the Open Meetings Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as you may be aware, the boards of trustees of a variety of entities characterized as “public libraries” are required to give effect to the Open Meetings Law. Some are governmental entities; others are not-for-profit corporations that typically have a relationship with government but which are not governmental entities. The boards of trustees of both the governmental and non-governmental public libraries are required to comply with the Open Meetings Law pursuant to §260-a of the Education Law, which states that:
"Every meeting, including a special district meeting, of a board of trustees of a public library system, cooperative library system, public library or free association library, including every committee meeting and subcommittee meeting of any such board of trustees in cities having a population of one million or more, shall be open to the general public. Such meetings shall be held in conformity with and in pursuance to the provisions of article seven of the public officers law. Provided, however, and notwithstanding the provisions of subdivision one of section ninety-nine of the public officers law, public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least two weeks prior thereto shall be given to the public and news media at least one week prior to such meeting."
Since Article 7 of the Public Officers Law is the Open Meetings Law, meetings of boards of trustees of various libraries, including public libraries that are not-for-profit corporations, must be conducted in accordance with that statute.
But for the enactment of §260-a, the boards of trustees of non-governmental or not-for-profit corporations that head public libraries would not fall within the scope of the Open Meetings Law. However, a board of trustees of a public library that is a governmental entity would fall within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law, even if §260-a of the Education Law had not been enacted, for it would constitute a “public body” subject to that statute.
Section 102(2) of the Open Meetings Law 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."
Based on the foregoing, the Open Meetings Law clearly applies to the governing bodies of governmental entities, and in addition, the last clause in the definition indicates that committees, subcommittees and similar bodies of a public body are themselves public bodies required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. In contrast, while the board of trustees of a public library that is not a governmental entity is required to conduct its meetings in accordance with the Open Meetings Law, §260-a of the Education Law provides, by implication, that committees and subcommittees of boards of trustees, except those in New York City, are not required to give effect to the Open Meetings Law.
In consideration of the preceding commentary, if the board of trustees of the library is a public body, I believe that committees and subcommittees consisting of two or members of the board would be required to comply with Open Meetings Law. In that instance, meetings of the committee would have to be preceded by notice given in accordance with §104 of the Open Meetings Law, and the committee would have the same obligations concerning openness and capacity to conduct executive sessions as the board of trustees.
Second, it is emphasized that the definition of "meeting" [§102(1)] 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.).
Based upon the direction given by the courts, if a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, any such gathering, in my opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.