June 3, 1997
Mr. David S. Shaw
Shaw & Perelson, LLP
2-4 Austin Court
Poughkeepsie, NY 12603
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 Mr. Shaw:
I have received your letter of May 19 in which you requested an advisory opinion concerning the Open Meetings Law.
You asked initially whether a board of education may conduct a "retreat to discuss the inner workings of a board of education and interpersonal relationships among board members at a site which is outside of the boundaries of the school district", and if so, whether there is any limitation on the distance from the district the retreat may be held. Similarly, you asked whether a regular or special meeting may be held outside of the District.
In this regard, as you are aware, the Open Meetings Law applies to meetings of public bodies, and a board of education clearly constitutes a public body required to comply with that statute. 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". 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 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 will 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.
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, Second Department, which includes Westchester County and 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, when a majority of a public body gathers to discuss public business, in their capacities as members of the body, any such gathering, in my opinion, would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. However, if there is no intent that a majority of public body will gather for purpose of conducting public business, but rather for the purpose of gaining education, training, to develop or improve team building or communication skills, or to consider interpersonal relations, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would be applicable.
In that event, if the gathering is to be held solely for those purposes other than conducting public business, and if the members in fact do not conduct or intend to conduct public business collectively as a body, the activities occurring during that event would not in my view constitute a meeting of a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law. If that is so, I know of no restriction or limitation concerning the location of the gathering.
In the case of a regular or special meeting, there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law or any other provision of law of which I am aware that specifies that meetings of boards of education must be conducted within the boundaries of a school district. Nevertheless, in my view, every provision of law, including the Open Meetings Law, must be carried out in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. Section 100 of that statute, the legislative declaration, states in part that: "It is essential...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." In my opinion, a meeting of a board of education, or any municipal body, must be held at a location where members of the public who might want to attend could reasonably do so. I doubt that a specific distance could be determined to be too far from or within reasonable distance of the boundaries of a district. Since you referred to a site two hours away, I believe that such an amount of travel time would be unreasonable; a half hour or less of travel time, however, would in my opinion likely be found to be reasonable.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman