August 23, 1996
James H. Gillespie
P.O. Box 232
Washingtonville, NY 10992
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 Trustee Gillespie:
I have received your letter of August 15 and the materials attached to it.
According to the correspondence, at least three members of the Village of Washingtonville Board of Trustees meet every Monday and Friday at a local bagel shop at 7 a.m. to discuss various aspects of Village business. The meetings are "informational" only; no action is taken. Notice has been given the public and it is clear that the public is invited to attend. Nevertheless, it is your view that the meetings are "not needed" and "unconstitutional."
From my perspective, there is no issue concerning the constitutionality of the meetings. I believe, however, that questions may be raised concerning the location and time of the meetings. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, although the Open Meetings Law does not specify where meetings must be held, §103(a) of the Law states in part that "Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the general public..." Further, the intent of the Open Meetings Law is clearly stated in §100 as follows:
"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 an 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. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it."
As such, the Open Meetings Law confers a right upon the public to attend and listen to the deliberations of public bodies and to observe the performance of public officials who serve on such bodies.
In my opinion, every provision of law, including the Open Meetings Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. If a meeting is held at a site involving a requirement that those in attendance pay for some sort of service or must order food, for example, some people who might otherwise attend might be unable or dissuaded from attending. If that is so in this instance, it would appear that the choice of location of the meetings in question would be inconsistent with the thrust of the Open Meetings Law.
Second, the same kind of consideration would applicable with respect to the time of the meetings and whether, in view of the intent of the Open Meetings, it is reasonable to schedule meetings at 7 a.m. In a recent decision that dealt in part with meetings of a board of education held at 7:30 a.m., it was stated that:
"It is...apparent to this Court that the scheduling of a board meeting at 7:30 a.m. -- even assuming arguendo that such meetings were properly noticed and promptly conducted -- does not facilitate attendance by members of the public, whether employed within or without the home, particularly those with school age or younger children, and all but insures that teachers and teacher associates at the school are unable to both attend and still comply with the requirement that they be in their classrooms by 8:40 a.m." (Matter of Goetchius v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Westchester County, New York Law Journal, August 8, 1996).
While the Court focused on the matter as it related to a Board of Education, I believe that similar factors would be present with respect to the ability of Village residents to attend meetings at 7 a.m. Many may be unable to attend because they too have small children, because of work schedules, commuting, and other matters that might effectively preclude them from attending meetings held so early in the morning. In short, particularly in view of the decision cited above, the reasonableness of conducting meetings at 7 a.m. is in my view questionable. I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Hon. Tom DeVinko