April 8, 1997
Evelyn Lindley, Councilwoman
126 Darrow Road
Sprakers, NY 12166
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 Councilwoman Lindley:
I have received your letter of March 21 in which you sought an opinion concerning the application of the Open Meetings Law.
According to your letter, a group of developers is interested in establishing a large landfill in the Town of Root, where you serve as a member of the Town Board. The developers have been speaking with groups of residents in order to answer questions concerning their plans. The senior citizen organization in the town invited the developers to its meeting on February 26. You wrote that you are President of that organization, but that you had no role in arranging to have the developers attend the meeting. You invited another member of the Town Board to attend, and a third member also attended. You indicated that the three Board members "did not sit together" nor at any time did you "talk in a group (not even about the weather)", but that you "are being accused of having an illegal meeting, as three Town Board members were present at this one place."
From my perspective, the gathering, as you described it, did not constitute a meeting of the Town Board, and the Open Meetings Law would not have been applicable. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
The Open Meetings Law pertains to meetings of public bodies, and §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". 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)].
Inherent in the definition and its judicial interpretation is the notion of intent. If there is an intent that a majority of a public body convene for the purpose of conducting public business, such a gathering would, in my opinion, constitute a meeting subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law. However, if there is no intent that a majority of public body will gather for purpose of conducting public business, collectively, as a body, but rather for the purpose of gaining education, training, or to listen to a speaker as part of an audience or group, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would be applicable.
I point out that similar questions have arisen at workshops and seminars during which I have spoken and which were attended by many, including perhaps a majority of the membership of several public bodies. Some of those persons have asked whether their presence at those gatherings fell within the scope of the Open Meetings Law. In brief, I have responded that, since the members of those entities did not attend for the purpose of conducting public business as a body, the Open Meetings Law, in my opinion, did not apply. It would appear that the same conclusion could be reached with respect to the matter that you described.
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman