August 18, 1997
Mr. John E. Greer
P.O. Box 336
Cayuga, NY 13034
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. Greer:
I have received your letter of July 18. You have questioned certain practices of the Union Springs Board of Education and requested an advisory opinion concerning their legality.
According to your letter, the Board's regular meetings are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. When you arrived at a recent meeting at 7:15, a meeting had already begun. When you asked to enter, you were informed that you could not do so "because it was not a regular meeting." At 7:40, you were informed that you could enter, but later the Board excluded you so that it could conduct an executive session. You indicated that "[t]here was no motion, second to the motion, or vote to go into executive session and there was no reason given as to why they were going into executive session." The meeting reopened and again was followed by an executive session held with no motion or vote. On the next day, the Superintendent informed you that "they were discussing some personnel issues", and the Board president told you that the session was held to "critique his leadership style."
From my perspective, the gathering begun prior to your arrival constituted a "meeting" that should have been held in accordance with the Open Meetings Law. Further, the Board appears to have failed to comply with the procedural requirements of that statute. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, it is emphasized that the Open Meetings Law 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)].
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, 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.).
I note that it has also been that "a planned informal conference" or a "briefing session" held by a quorum of a public body would constitute a "meeting" subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law [see Goodson-Todman v. Kingston, 153 Ad 2d 103, 105 (1990)].
Based upon the terms of the Open Meetings Law and its judicial interpretation, if a majority of the Board gathers to conduct public business, any such gathering would, in my opinion, constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. Further, when there is an intent to conduct a meeting, the gathering must be preceded by notice given pursuant to §104 of the Open Meetings Law, convened open to the public and conducted in public as required by the Open Meetings Law.
Second, 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.
Third, although it is used frequently, the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. Although one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters, from my perspective, 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.
In the context of the situation at issue, I do not believe that a discussion of the "leadership style" of the Board's president would have fallen within the coverage of §105(1)(f).
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, has 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; 207AD 2d 55, 58 (1994)] Lastly, you asked whether there must be minutes of an executive session or a "synopsis" when a board returns to an open meeting. Many public bodies frequently provide some indication or summary of what was considered during an executive session, but there is no requirement that they do so. As indicated previously, a motion must be made prior to entry into executive session, and that motion must be referenced in minutes of the meeting. Section 106 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to minutes and states that:
"1. Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.
2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.
3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."
As a general rule, a public body may take action during a properly convened executive session [see Open Meetings Law, §105(1)]. In the case of most public bodies, if action is taken during an executive session, minutes reflective of the action, the date and the vote must be recorded in minutes pursuant to §106(2) of the Law. If no action is taken, there is no requirement that minutes of the executive session be prepared. Various interpretations of the Education Law, §1708(3), however, indicate that, except in situations in which action during a closed session is permitted or required by statute, a school board cannot take action during an executive session [see United Teachers of Northport v. Northport Union Free School District, 50 AD 2d 897 (1975); Kursch et al. v. Board of Education, Union Free School District #1, Town of North Hempstead, Nassau County, 7 AD 2d 922 (1959); Sanna v. Lindenhurst, 107 Misc. 2d 267, modified 85 AD 2d 157, aff'd 58 NY 2d 626 (1982)]. Stated differently, based upon judicial interpretations of the Education Law, a school board generally cannot vote during an executive session, except in rare circumstances in which a statute permits or requires such a vote.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings Law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to those identified in your letter.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Whitney Vantine