January 10, 2002
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.
As you are aware, your letter of December 17 addressed to James P. King, Counsel to the New York State Department of State, has been forwarded to the Committee on Open Government. The Committee, a unit of the Department of State, is authorized to provide advice and opinions concerning the Open Meetings Law.
According to your letter, the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Tourism Subcommittee created an entity known as "Partners in Tourism" ("PIT"), and you wrote that:
"Members of the business community are selected by the sub- committee to sit on the PIT committee with members of the Columbia Board of Supervisors to discuss the use and expenditures of Columbia County and New York State funds in tourism marketing. 'Minutes of the meetings are kept by Tourism Dept. staff...for a measure of public oversight.'"
It is your view that meetings of PIT should be conducted open to the public, for the members "influence and direct the use of public funds and official policies." You added that PIT "is directly responsible for allocation and expenditure of public funds, which are discussed in meetings closed to the public."
The issue is whether PIT is a "public body" that falls within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law. Section 102(2) of that statute 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, a public body is, in my view, an entity required to conduct public business by means of a quorum that performs a governmental function and carries out its duties collectively, as a body. In order to constitute a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law, a majority of the total membership of a public body, a quorum, must be present for the purpose of conducting public business. I note, too, that the definition refers to committees, subcommittees and similar bodies of a public body. Based on judicial interpretations, if a committee, for example, consists solely of members of a particular public body, it, too, would constitute a public body. For instance, in the case of a legislative body consisting of seven members, four would constitute a quorum, and a gathering of that number or more for the purpose of conducting public business would be a meeting that falls within the scope of the Law. If that body designates a committee consisting of three of its members, the committee would itself be a public body; its quorum would be two, and a gathering of two or more, in their capacities as members of that committee, would be a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law.
With specific respect to your area of concern, several judicial decisions indicate generally that advisory bodies, other than those consisting of members of a governing body, that have no power to take final action fall outside the scope of the Open Meetings Law. As stated in those decisions: "it has long been held that the mere giving of advice, even about governmental matters is not itself a governmental function" [Goodson-Todman Enterprises, Ltd. v. Town Board of Milan, 542 NYS 2d 373, 374, 151 AD 2d 642 (1989); Poughkeepsie Newspaper v. Mayor's Intergovernmental Task Force, 145 AD 2d 65, 67 (1989); see also New York Public Interest Research Group v. Governor's Advisory Commission, 507 NYS 2d 798, aff'd with no opinion, 135 AD 2d 1149, motion for leave to appeal denied, 71 NY 2d 964 (1988)]. In one of the decisions, Poughkeepsie Newspaper, supra, a task force was designated by then Mayor Koch consisting of representatives of New York City agencies, as well as federal and state agencies and the Westchester County Executive, to review plans and make recommendations concerning the City's long range water supply needs. The Court specified that the Mayor was "free to accept or reject the recommendations" of the Task Force and that "[i]t is clear that the Task Force, which was created by invitation rather than by statute or executive order, has no power, on its own, to implement any of its recommendations" (id., 67). Referring to the other cases cited above, the Court found that "[t]he unifying principle running through these decisions is that groups or entities that do not, in fact, exercise the power of the sovereign are not performing a governmental function, hence they are not 'public bod[ies] subject to the Open Meetings Law..."(id.).
On the other hand, if an entity consisting of two or members that functions as a body has the authority to take action, i.e., through the power to allocate public monies or make determinations, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has held that the entity would constitute a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law. In a case dealing with a student government body at a public educational institution ("the Association, Inc."), the Court provided guidance concerning the application of the Open Meetings Law, stating that:
"In determining whether an entity is a public body, various criteria and benchmarks are material. They include the authority under which the entity was created, the power distribution or sharing model under which it exists, the nature of its role, the power it possesses and under which it purports to act, and a realistic appraisal of its functional relationship to affected parties and constituencies.
"This Court has noted that the powers and functions of an entity should be derived from State law in order to be deemed a public body for Open Meetings Law purposes (see, Matter of American Socy. for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals v Board of Trustees of State Univ. of N.Y., 79 NY2d 927, 929). In the instant case, the parties do not dispute the CUNY derives its powers from State law and it surely is essentially a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law for almost any imaginable purpose. The Association, Inc. contends, on the other hand, that is a separate, distinct, subsidiary entity, and does not perform any governmental function that would render it also a public body.
"It may be that an entity exercising only an advisory function would not qualify as a public body within the purview of the Open Meetings Law...More pertinently here, however, a formally chartered entity with officially delegated duties and organizational attributes of a substantive nature, as this Association, Inc. enjoys, should be deemed a public body that is performing a governmental function (compare, Matter of Syracuse United Neighbors v. City of Syracuse, 80 AD2d 984, 985, appeal dismissed 55 NY2d 995). It is invested with decision-making authority to implement its own initiatives and, as a practical matter, operates under protocols and practices where its recommendations and actions are executed unilaterally and finally, or receive merely perfunctory review or approval...This Association, Inc. possessed and exercised real and effective decision-making power. CUNY, through its by-laws, delegated to the Association, Inc. its statutory power to administer student activity fees (see, Education Law §6206[a]). The Association, Inc. holds the purse strings and the responsibility of supervising and reviewing the student activity fee budget. (CUNY By-Laws §16.5[a]). CUNY's by-laws also provide that the Association, Inc. 'shall disapprove any allocation or expenditure it finds does not so conform, or is inappropriate, improper, or inequitable,' thus reposing in the Association, Inc. a final decision-making authority... [Smith v. CUNY, 92 NY2d 707; 713-714 (1999)].
In sum, if the functions of the PIT are purely advisory, I do not believe that it is required to comply with the Open Meetings Law. If, however, it has been conferred with decision making authority by the County, it would appear to fall within the coverage of that statute.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Supervisors
Hon. Tod Grenci