Open Meetings Law

(The following text comes from “Your Right to Know,” a publication of New York state’s Committee on Open Government.)

The Open Meetings Law, often known as the “Sunshine Law”, went into effect in 1977. Amendments that clarify and reaffirm your right to hear the deliberations of public bodies became effective in 1979.

In brief, the law gives the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to the debates and watch the decision making process in action. It requires public bodies to provide notice of the times and places of meetings, and keep minutes of all action taken.

As stated in the legislative declaration in the Open Meetings Law (100): “It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society 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.”

What is a meeting?

“Meeting” is defined to mean “the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business” (102(1)), and has been expansively interpreted by the courts. Any time a quorum of a public body gathers for the purpose of discussing public business, the meeting must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is intent to take action, and regardless of the manner in which the gathering may be characterized. The definition also authorizes members of public bodies to conduct meetings by videoconference. A meeting cannot validly be held by telephone or through the use of email.

Since the law applies to “official” meetings, chance meetings or social gatherings are not covered; however, should a quorum be present without having provided proper notice, the discussion should not pertain to public business. Also, the law is silent with respect to public participation. Therefore, a public body may permit the public to speak at open meetings, but is not required to do so.

What is covered by the law?

The law applies to all public bodies. “Public body” is defined to cover entities consisting of two or more people that conduct public business and perform a governmental function for the state, for an agency of the state, or for public corporations, including cities, counties, towns, villages and school districts (102(2)). In addition, committees and subcommittees consisting solely of members of a governing body are specifically included within the definition. Consequently, city councils, town boards, village boards of trustees, school boards, commissions, legislative bodies and sub/committees of those groups all fall within the framework of the law. Citizens advisory bodies and similar advisory groups that are not created by law are not required to comply with the Open Meetings Law.

Notice of Meetings

The law requires that notice of the time and place of all meetings be given prior to every meeting (104). If a meeting is scheduled at least a week in advance, notice must be given to the public and the news media not less than 72 hours prior to the meeting. Notice to the public must be accomplished by posting in one or more designated public locations and, when possible, online.

When a meeting is scheduled less than a week in advance, notice must be given to the public and the news media “to the extent practicable” at a reasonable time prior to the meeting. Again, notice to the public must be given by means of posting in designated locations and online.

If videoconferencing is used to conduct a meeting, the public notice for the meeting must inform the public that videoconferencing will be used, identify the locations for the meeting, and state that the public has the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations.

Records to be discussed

If records that are scheduled to be discussed during an open meeting are available under FOIL or consist of a proposed resolution, law, rule, regulation, policy or any amendment thereto, the record is required to be made available “to the extent practicable” online and in response to a request to inspect or copy prior to or during the meeting.

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