January 20, 2006
FROM: Camille S. Jobin-Davis, Assistant Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
We are in receipt of your January 13, 2006 e-mail request for clarification of a recent advisory opinion written to you, and a corollary e-mail from Angela Daley, also a member of the Sullivan West School District Board of Education. We note your contrasting viewpoints on the intent and actions of Board of Education members who gathered at a recent "parent meeting" and offer these additional comments in an effort to clarify our advisory opinion addressed to you.
As you know, this office has neither the resources nor the authority to conduct a fact-finding investigation. As indicated in the underlined text at the top of the first page of every opinion, each opinion is only as valuable as the strength of the facts presented to the Committee, and our authority involves issuing advisory opinions based on the facts presented.
Attached to your original request was an e-mail from Board member Daley referencing the parent meeting in which she stated: "it would be great if some board members could attend the meetings." She then stated, "It is a good opportunity to hear the concerns and interest of our constituents prior to budget planning time." You were not present at the meeting, however, Board member Novak, who was present, related her belief that Board member contributions were made in their capacities as parents.
You have pointed out language from other opinions issued by the Committee on Open Government in which we delineated the differences between formal and "informal" meetings. Based on the facts as you and Ms. Novak and Ms. Daley have presented them in this case, it does not appear that the intent or the actions of the Board members rose to the level of a meeting as defined by the Open Meetings Law.
In a decision involving Planning Board members conducting a site visit, Riverkeeper v. The Planning Board of the Town of Somers (Supreme Court, Westchester County, June 14, 2002), it was concluded that a site visit by a Planning Board does not constitute a meeting subject to the Open Meetings Law so long as its purpose is not "for anything other than to ‘observe and acquire information.’" The court in that decision cited and apparently relied on advisory opinion rendered by this office in which it was suggest that:
"...site visits or tours by public bodies should be conducted solely for the purpose of observation and acquiring information, and...any discussions or deliberations regarding such observations should occur in public during meetings conducted in accordance with the Open Meetings Law."
If Board members attended as parents and did not function or situate themselves as a body, the gathering at issue, in our view, would not have constituted a "meeting." We point out, however, that it has been held that "briefing sessions" conducted with a majority of a public body present have been found to be "meetings" falling within the coverage of the Open Meetings Law [ see Goodson Todson Enterprises v. City of Kingston, 53 Ad2d 103 (1990); Binghamton Press v. Board of Education, 67 AD2d 797 (1979)]. In short, without additional information regarding the event, we cannot offer an unequivocal response. We hope, however, that the preceding remarks are of value to you.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis
cc: Board of Education