February 27, 1996
Ms. Vicki Simons
The Independent Box 246
Hillsdale, NY 12529
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 Ms. Simons:
As you are aware, I have received your communication of February 13, as well as related materials. You have requested an advisory opinion concerning the propriety of action taken by the Canaan Town Board.
According to a news article that you prepared, the Town Board essentially selected a new zoning code enforcement officer/building inspector outside the context of a meeting by means of a series of telephone calls. The Town Attorney wrote, however, that "[a]t most, there may have been telephone conversations between [the Supervisor] and other Board members on a one-to-one basis" and that "because no meeting occurred, there was no violation of the Open Meetings Law." Nevertheless, you informed me that there may have been more than merely a series of telephone conversations, for your notes indicate that the Supervisor said that the members were "polled by phone."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that would preclude members of a public body from conferring individually or by telephone. However, a series of communications between individual members or telephone calls among the members which results in a collective decision, or a meeting held by means of a telephone conference, would in my opinion be inconsistent with law.
As you are aware, §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 assemble syn see 'SUMMON'" (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Copyright 1965).
In view of that definition and others, I believe that a meeting, i.e., the "convening" of a public body, involves the physical coming together of at least a majority of the total membership of the Commission. While nothing in the Open Meetings Law refers to the capacity of a member to participate or vote at a remote location by telephone, it has consistently been advised that a member of a public body cannot cast a vote unless he or she is physically present at a meeting of the body.
It is noted, too, that the definition of "public body" [see Open Meetings Law, §102(2)] refers to entities that are required to conduct public business by means of a quorum. In this regard, the term "quorum" is defined in §41 of the General Construction Law, which has been in effect since 1909. 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 public body 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 reasonably notice to all of the members. As such, it is my view that a public body has the capacity to carry out its duties only at meetings during which a majority of the total membership has convened.
Lastly, I direct your attention to the legislative declaration of the Open Meetings Law, §100, which states in part that:
"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 and 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."
Based on the foregoing, the Open Meetings Law is intended to provide the public with the right to observe the performance of public officials in their deliberations. That intent cannot be realized if members of a public body conduct public business as a body or vote by phone.
In sum, while I believe that members of public bodies may consult with one another individually or by phone, I do not believe that they may validly conduct meetings by means of telephone conferences or make collective determinations by means of a series of "one on one" conversations or by means of telephonic communications.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Town Board
Theodore Guterman, II