December 12, 1994
Hon. Mario DeSantis
Village of Solvay
1100 Woods Road
Solvay, NY 13209
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, unless otherwise indicated.
Dear Mayor DeSantis:
I have received your communication of October 31. In conjunction with the materials, you sought opinions concerning the Open Meetings Law and the disclosure of personnel records.
The materials indicate that members of the Board of Trustees discuss public business and apparently take action without convening meetings in accordance with the Open Meetings Law. By means of example, you referred to an agreement reached by four trustees, during a Memorial Day parade, to place a certain person on the Village payroll.
In this regard, while no law would preclude one member of the Board from conferring with another, in those situations in which action must be taken by the Board, collectively, as a body, such action may in my view be taken only at a meeting of the Board during which a majority of its members is present and only by means of an affirmative vote of a majority of its total membership.
The Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of public bodies, and §102(2) of that statute defines the term "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."
I believe that a village board of trustees clearly constitutes a "public body" that is subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law.
Also relevant to the issue raised in my view is §41 of the General Construction Law which provides guidance concerning quorum and voting requirements. Specifically, the cited provision states that:
"Whenever three of more public officers are given any power or authority, or three or more persons are charged with any public duty to be performed or exercised by them jointly or as a board or similar body, a majority of the whole number of such persons or officers, at a meeting duly held at a time fixed by law, or by any by-law duly adopted by such board of body, or at any duly adjourned meeting of such meeting, or at any meeting duly held upon reasonable notice to all of them, shall constitute a quorum and not less than a majority of the whole number may perform and exercise such power, authority or duty. For the purpose of this provision the words 'whole number' shall be construed to mean the total number which the board, commission, body or other group of persons or officers would have were there no vacancies and were none of the persons or officers disqualified from acting."
Based upon the language quoted above, a village board cannot carry out its powers or duties except by means of an affirmative vote of a majority of its total membership taken at a meeting duly held upon reasonable notice to all of the members.
Section 102(1) of the Open Meetings Law defines the term "meeting" to mean "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business". Based upon an ordinary dictionary definition of "convene", that term means:
"1. to summon before a tribunal;
2. to cause to assembly syn see 'SUMMON'" (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Copyright 1965).
In view of the ordinary definition of "convene", I believe that a "convening" of a quorum requires the physical coming together of at least a majority of the total membership of a board of trustees, that a majority of a board would constitute a quorum, and that an affirmative majority of votes would be needed for a board to take action or to carry out its duties.
It is emphasized that the definition of "meeting" 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 the Board gathers to discuss public business, in their capacities as Board members, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
The second issue involves the authority of a payroll clerk to disclose personnel records without having received a request in writing or following established procedures.
By way of background, §89(1)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law requires the Committee on Open Government to promulgate regulations concerning the procedural aspects of the Law (see 21 NYCRR Part 1401). In turn, §87(1)(a) of the Law states that:
"the governing body of each public corporation shall promulgate uniform rules and regulations for all agencies in such public corporation 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 administration of this article."
In this instance, the governing board of a public corporation, the Village of Solvay, is the Board of Trustees, and I believe that the Board is required to promulgate appropriate rules and regulations consistent with those adopted by the Committee on Open Government and with the Freedom of Information Law.
The initial responsibility to deal with requests is borne by an agency's records access officer, and the Committee's regulations provide direction concerning the designation and duties of a records access officer. Specifically, §1401.2 of the regulations provides in relevant part that:
"(a) The governing body of a public corporation and the head of an executive agency or governing body of other agencies shall be responsible for insuring compliance with the regulations herein, and shall designate one or more persons as records access officer by name or by specific job title and business address, who shall have the duty of coordinating agency response to public requests for access to records. The designation of one or more records access officers shall not be construed to prohibit officials who have in the past been authorized to make records or information available to the public from continuing to do so."
As such, the Board has the ability to designate "one or more persons as records access officer". Further, §1401.2(b) of the regulations describes the duties of a records access officer and states in part that:
"The records access Officer is responsible for assuring that agency personnel:
(1) Maintain an up-to-date subject matter list. (2) Assist the requester in identifying requested records, if necessary. (3) Upon locating the records, take one of the following actions:
(i) make records promptly available for inspection; or (ii) deny access to the records in whole or in part and explain in writing the reasons therefor.
(4) Upon request for copies of records:
(i) make a copy available upon payment or offer to pay established fees, if any; or (ii) permit the requester to copy those records.
(5) Upon request, certify that a record is a true copy. (6) Upon failure to locate the records, certify that:
(i) the agency is not the custodian for such records; or (ii) the records of which the agency is a custodian cannot be found after diligent search."
Based on the foregoing, the records access officer has the duty of coordinating an agency's response to requests for records. Unless the person who made the disclosure had been authorized to do so, I believe that the request should have been forwarded to the Village's designated records access officer.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman