April 28, 2008
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.
We are in receipt of your request for an advisory opinion concerning application of the Open Meetings Law to meeting of the West Seneca Town Board. You indicated that meetings of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board typically start at 7 or 7:30 pm, but that “the annual organization[al] meetings have been held at 5:00 pm most recently and under previous administrations the organizational meeting was held at 1:00 pm.” You expressed the belief that conducting organizational meetings at 5 pm or 1 pm is unreasonable, based on Goetchius v. Board of Education Supreme Court, Westchester County, New York Law Journal, August 8, 1996, and our advisory opinion no. 2648a. In this regard, we offer the following comments.
In our view, although questions may be raised concerning the time of the organizational meeting, holding an annual organizational meeting at a different time than regular monthly meetings is not necessarily unreasonable.
First although the Open Meetings Law does not specify what time 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 an 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 and listen to the deliberations of public bodies and to observe the performance of public officials who serve on such bodies.
In our opinion, every provision of law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. In the Goetchius decision that you referenced, the court dealt in part with meetings of a board of education held at 7:30 a.m., and stated that:
"It is...apparent to this Court that the scheduling of a board meeting at 7:30 a.m. -- even assuming arguendo that such meetings were properly noticed and promptly conducted -- does not facilitate attendance by members of the public, whether employed within or without the home, particularly those with school age or younger children, and all but insures that teachers and teacher associates at the school are unable to both attend and still comply with the requirement that they be in their classrooms by 8:40 a.m." (Matter of Goetchius v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Westchester County, New York Law Journal, August 8, 1996).
While the Court focused on the matter as it related to a Board of Education, we believe that similar factors would be present with respect to the ability of Town residents to attend meetings. Many may be unable to attend because they too have small children, because of work schedules, commuting, and other matters that might effectively preclude them from attending meetings held so early in the morning. In short, particularly in view of the decision cited above, the reasonableness of conducting meetings at 7:30 a.m. is in our view questionable.
The question that you raise is different: whether it is reasonable to schedule a meeting during regular business hours, or immediately thereafter. We know of no judicial decisions that addresses the issue. In our view, because organizational meetings are typically held only once a year, and many public bodies conduct organizational meetings on January 1, which is a public holiday, it does not necessarily follow that holding the organizational meeting at 5 pm or 1 pm would discourage or hinder attendance. Further, in our opinion, holding a meeting during regular business hours would not be unreasonable.
On behalf of the Committee on Open Government we hope that this is helpful to you.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis