May 14, 1996
Ms. Nina Kim Syracuse Herald-Journal Clinton Square P.O. Box 4915 Syracuse, NY 13221-4915
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 Ms. Kim:
I have received your letter of April 29. You have sought my opinion with respect to three situations involving two municipalities in Onondaga County and their implementation of the Open Meetings Law.
The first pertained to a proposed executive session relating to "the matter of police consolidation", and the Solvay Village Board of Trustees "wanted to discuss whether or not it should meet with the city on merging police forces." The second involved the same board, for its police committee and the Mayor met with Syracuse City officials, again, on the issue of police consolidation. One of the trustees contended that "the board could go into executive session because the involved the contract." The third pertained to a meeting of the police committees of the Solvay Village Board and the Geddes Town Board to consider "the possibility of merging police departments", and the issue involves the status of those committees under the Open Meetings Law.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as a general matter, the Open Meetings Law is based upon a presumption of openness. Stated differently, meetings of public bodies must be conducted open to the public, unless there is a basis for entry into executive session. Moreover, the Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an executive session. Specifically, §105(1) states in relevant part that:
"Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only..."
As such, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or subjects to be discussed, and the motion must be carried by majority vote of a public body's total membership before such a session may validly be held. The ensuing provisions of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may appropriately be considered during an executive session.
While discussions of police agency consolidations or mergers might involve "personnel" and/or "contract negotiations", it is doubtful in my view that those issues could properly be discussed in executive sessions.
Although it is used frequently, the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. It is true that one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters. From my perspective, however, the term is overused and is frequently cited in a manner that is misleading or causes unnecessary confusion. To be sure, some issues involving "personnel" may be properly considered in an executive session; others, in my view, cannot. Further, certain matters that have nothing to do with personnel may be discussed in private under the provision that is ordinarily cited to discuss personnel.
The language of the so-called "personnel" exception, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law, is limited and precise. In terms of legislative history, as originally enacted, the provision in question permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."
Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.
To attempt to clarify the Law, the Committee recommended a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law, several of which became effective on October 1, 1979. The recommendation made by the Committee regarding §105(1)(f) was enacted and states that a public body may enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation..." (emphasis added).
Due to the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), I believe that a discussion of "personnel" may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when at least one of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) is considered.
When a discussion concerns matters of policy, such as the manner in which public money will be expended or allocated, the functions of a department or perhaps the creation or elimination of positions, I do not believe that §105(1)(f) could be asserted, even though the discussion may relate to "personnel". For example, if a discussion involves staff reductions or layoffs due to budgetary concerns, the issue in my view would involve matters of policy. Similarly, if a discussion of possible layoff relates to positions and whether those positions should be retained or abolished, the discussion would involve the means by which public monies would be allocated. In none of the instances described would the focus involve a "particular person" and how well or poorly an individual has performed his or her duties. To reiterate, in order to enter into an executive session pursuant to §105(1)(f), I believe that the discussion must focus on a particular person (or persons) in relation to a topic listed in that provision. As stated judicially, "it would seem that under the statute matters related to personnel generally or to personnel policy should be discussed in public for such matters do not deal with any particular person" (Doolittle v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Chemumg County, October 20, 1981).
It has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or "specific personnel matters" is inadequate, and that the motion should be based upon the specific language of §105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
It is noted that the Appellate Division, Second Department, recently confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving the establishment and functions of a position, the Court stated that:
"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 ), and it is apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).
"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue', does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]). Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 620 NY 2d 573, 575; 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].
With regard to contracts, none of the grounds for entry into executive session deals in general with contractual matters, contract discussions or negotiations. The only provision that touches directly on contract negotiations is §105(1)(e), which authorizes a public body to enter into an executive session regarding "collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law." Article 14 of the Civil Service Law, commonly known as the "Taylor Law," pertains to the relationship between public employers and public employee unions. As such, §105(1)(e) deals with collective bargaining negotiations between a public employer and a public employee union.
In terms of a motion to enter into an executive session held pursuant to §105(1)(e), it has been held that:
"Concerning 'negotiations', Public Officers Law section 100[e] permits a public body to enter into executive session to discuss collective negotiations under Article 14 of the Civil Service Law. As the term 'negotiations' can cover a multitude of areas, we believe that the public body should make it clear that the negotiations to be discussed in executive session involve Article 14 of the Civil Service Law" [Doolittle, supra].
Lastly, with respect to committees, when the Open Meetings Law went into effect in 1977, questions consistently arose with respect to the status of committees, subcommittees and similar bodies that had no capacity to take final action, but rather merely the authority to advise. Those questions arose due to the definition of "public body" as it appeared in the Open Meetings Law as it was originally enacted. Perhaps the leading case on the subject also involved a situation in which a governing body, a school board, designated committees consisting of less than a majority of the total membership of the board. In Daily Gazette Co., Inc. v. North Colonie Board of Education [67 AD 2d 803 (1978)], it was held that those advisory committees, which had no capacity to take final action, fell outside the scope of the definition of "public body".
Nevertheless, prior to its passage, the bill that became the Open Meetings Law was debated on the floor of the Assembly. During that debate, questions were raised regarding the status of "committees, subcommittees and other subgroups." In response to those questions, the sponsor stated that it was his intent that such entities be included within the scope of the definition of "public body" (see Transcript of Assembly proceedings, May 20, 1976, pp. 6268-6270).
Due to the determination rendered in Daily Gazette, supra, which was in apparent conflict with the stated intent of the sponsor of the legislation, a series of amendments to the Open Meetings Law was enacted in 1979 and became effective on October 1 of that year. Among the changes was a redefinition of the term "public body". "Public body" is now defined in §102(2) to include:
"...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."
Although the original definition made reference to entities that "transact" public business, the current definition makes reference to entities that "conduct" public business. Moreover, the definition makes specific reference to "committees, subcommittees and similar bodies" of a public body.
In view of the amendments to the definition of "public body", I believe that any entity consisting of two or more members of a public body, such as a committee or subcommittee consisting of members of a municipal board, would fall within the requirements of the Open Meetings Law, assuming that a committee discusses or conducts public business collectively as a body [see Syracuse United Neighbors v. City of Syracuse, 80 AD 2d 984 (1981)]. Further, as a general matter, I believe that a quorum consists of a majority of the total membership of a body (see e.g., General Construction Law, §41). Therefore, if, for example, the MTA Board consists of nine, its quorum would be five; in the case of a committee consisting of three, a quorum would be two.
When a committee is subject to the Open Meetings Law, I believe that it has the same obligations regarding notice and openness, for example, as well as the same authority to conduct executive sessions, as a governing body [see Glens Falls Newspapers, Inc. v. Solid Waste and Recycling Committee of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, 195 AD 2d 898 (1993)].
As you suggested and in an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings Law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to officials of the Village of Solvay and the Town of Geddes.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Hon. Mario DeSantis, Mayor
Hon. Manuel Martinez, Supervisor