February 9, 2000
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
I have received your letter of December 27 in which you sought an advisory opinion
concerning the status of social gatherings in relation to the Open Meetings Law.
In this regard, it is noted at the outset that the Open Meetings Law pertains to
meetings of public bodies, and that the courts have construed the term "meeting" [§102(1)]
expansively. In a landmark decision rendered in 1978, the state's highest court, the Court of
Appeals, held that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting
public business constitutes a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law, 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, Division of Ottoway Newspapers, Inc. v.
Council of the City of Newburgh, 60 AD 2d 409, aff'd 45 NY 2d 947 (1978)]. In my
opinion, inherent in the definition of "meeting" is the notion of intent. If a majority of a
public body gathers in order to conduct public business collectively, as a body, I believe that such a gathering would constitute a "meeting" subject to the Open Meetings Law. In the
decision cited earlier, the Court affirmed a decision rendered by the Appellate Division that
dealt specifically with so-called "work sessions" and similar gatherings during which there
was merely an intent to discuss, but no intent to take formal action. In so holding, the court
"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 form action. Formal acts have always been matters of public records 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).
With respect to social gatherings or chance meetings, it was found that:
"We agree that not every assembling of the members of a
public body was intended to be included within the definition.
Clearly casual encounters by members do not fall within the
open meetings statutes. But an informal 'conference' or 'agenda
session' does, for it permits 'the crystallization of secret
decisions to point just short of ceremonial acceptance'" (id. at
In view of the foregoing, if members of a public body meet by chance or at a social
gathering, for example, I do not believe that the Open Meetings Law would apply, for there
would be no intent to conduct public business, collectively, as a body. However, if, by
design, the members of a public body seek to meet to socialize and to discuss public
business, formally or otherwise, I believe that a gathering of a majority would trigger the
application of the Open Meetings Law, for such gatherings would, according to judicial
interpretations, constitute "meetings" subject to the Law.
If indeed the sole purpose of a gathering is social in nature, the Open Meetings Law, in my view, would not apply. However, if during the social gathering, a majority of the members of a public body begin to discuss the business of that body, collectively as a group, I believe that they should recognize that they are conducting public business without notice to the public and immediately cease their discussion of public business. Moreover, in that situation, I would conjecture that a court would determine that the public body would have acted in a manner inconsistent with law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman