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OML-AO-4808

September 9, 2009

 

The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions.  The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.

Dear
This is in response to the additional materials that you submitted in conjunction with your request for an advisory opinion, as indicated in our correspondence to you.  You submitted minutes from various meetings of the Board of the Hamilton County Industrial Development Agency, characterized as “Supervisors’ Chambers”.  We offer the following comments in light of the issues raised in the additional materials that you submitted.

            First, we note that the Open Meetings Law pertains to meetings of public bodies, e.g., IDA boards, and that 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)].

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 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, we do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would apply, for there would be no intent to conduct public business, collectively, as a body. If by design, however, the members of a public body seek to meet after a public hearing, or before a public meeting, to socialize and to discuss public business, formally or otherwise, we 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.

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 our opinion, would ordinarily constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. Regardless of the location or the timing of the meeting, since a session held by a majority of a public body is a "meeting", it would have the same responsibilities in relation to openness, notice and the taking of minutes as in the case of a formal meeting.

Next, the Open Meetings Law does not specify where a public body must conduct its meetings; however, the law does provide direction concerning the site of meetings. Section 103(b) of the law states that:

"Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free physical access to the physically handicapped, as defined in subdivision five of section fifty of the public buildings law."

Based upon the language quoted above, the Open Meetings Law, in our opinion, imposes no obligation upon a public body to construct a new facility or to renovate an existing facility to permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. On the other hand, we believe that the law does impose a responsibility upon a public body to make "all reasonable efforts" to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit barrier-free access to physically handicapped persons. Therefore, if, for example, the Board has the capacity to hold its meetings in a first floor room that is accessible to handicapped persons rather than a second floor room, we believe that the meetings should be held in the room that is most likely to accommodate the needs of people with handicapping conditions.

Further, as you are aware, the Open Meetings Law contains direction concerning minutes of meetings and provides what might be viewed as minimum requirements pertaining to their contents. Specifically, §106 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, as a general rule, a public body may take action during a properly convened executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)].  If action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must generally be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law.  If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared.

Please note that minutes of executive sessions need not include information that may be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law. From our perspective, when a public body makes a final determination during an executive session, that determination will, in most instances, be public. For example, although a discussion to hire or fire a particular employee could clearly be discussed during an executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)(f)], a determination to hire or fire that person would be recorded in minutes and would be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law. If a public body votes to initiate a disciplinary proceeding against a public employee, minutes reflective of its action would not have include reference to or identify the person, for the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would result in an unwarranted personal privacy such as unsubstantiated charges or allegations [see Freedom of Information Law, §87(2)(b)].

            With respect to issues involving notice of meetings, §104 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to notice and states that:

“1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before such meeting.

2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be given to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto.

3. The public notice provided for by this section shall not be construed to require publication as a legal notice.

4. If videoconferencing is used to conduct a meeting, the public notice for the meeting shall inform the public that videoconferencing will be used, identify the locations for the meeting, and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations.”

            Earlier this year, the Legislature added subdivision (5), set forth as follows:

“5. When a public body has the ability to do so, notice of the time and place of a meeting given in accordance with subdivision one or two of this section, shall also be conspicuously posted on the public body’s internet website.”

Section 104 now imposes a three-fold requirement: one, that notice must be posted in one or more conspicuous, public locations; two, that notice must be given to the news media; and three, that notice must be conspicuously posted on the body’s website, when there is an ability to do so. The requirement that notice of a meeting be "posted" in one or more "designated" locations, in our opinion, mandates that a public body, by resolution or through the adoption of policy or a directive, select one or more specific locations where notice of meetings will consistently and regularly be posted. If, for instance, a bulletin board located at the entrance of a town hall has been designated as a location for posting notices of meetings, the public has the ability to know where to ascertain whether and when meetings of a town board will be held.  And again, every public body with the ability to do so must post notice of the time and place of its meetings online.

With respect to the enforcement of the Open Meetings Law, §107(1) of the Law states in 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."

However, the same provision states further that:

"An unintentional failure to fully comply with the notice provisions required by this article shall not alone be grounds for invalidating any action taken at a meeting of a public body."

As such, when a legal challenge is initiated relating to a failure to provide notice, a key issue is whether a failure to comply with the notice requirements imposed by the Open Meetings Law was "unintentional".

            Finally, an amendment to §107(1) of the Open Meetings Law recently approved is intended to improve compliance and to ensure that public business is discussed in public as required by that law.  Effective August 5, 2008, the new provision states that when it is found by a court that a public body voted in private “in material violation” of the law “or that substantial deliberations occurred in private” that should have occurred in public, the court “shall award costs and reasonable attorney’s fees” to the person or entity that initiated the lawsuit.  The mandatory award of attorney’s fees would apply only when secrecy is the issue.  In other instances, those in which the matter involves compliance with other aspects of the Open Meetings Law, such as a failure to fully comply with notice requirements, the sufficiency of a motion for entry into executive session, or the preparation of minutes in a timely manner, the award of attorney’s fees by a court would remain, as it has since 1977, discretionary.

            On behalf of the Committee on Open Government, we hope that this is helpful to you.

                                                                                                Sincerely,

 

                                                                                                Camille S. Jobin-Davis
                                                                                                Assistant Director

 

CSJ:jm

cc: Industrial Development Agency