When can a public meeting be closed?
(The following text comes from “Your Right to Know,” a publication of New York state’s Committee on Open Government.)
The law provides for closed or “executive” sessions under circumstances prescribed in the law. It is important to emphasize that an executive session is not separate from an open meeting, but rather is defined as a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded (105).
To hold an executive session, the law requires that a public body take several procedural steps. First, a motion must be made during an open meeting to enter into executive session; second, the motion must identify “the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered;” and third, the motion must be carried by a majority vote of the total membership of a public body.
A public body cannot close its doors to the public to discuss the subject of its choice, for the law specifies and limits the subject matter that may appropriately be discussed in executive session. The eight areas that may be discussed behind closed doors include:
(a) matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
(b) any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agency or informer;
(c) information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
(d) discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
(e) collective negotiations pursuant to Article 14 of the Civil Service Law (the Taylor Law);
(f) 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;
(g) the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
(h) the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.
These are the only subjects that may be discussed behind closed doors; all other deliberations must be conducted during open meetings.
It is important to point out that a public body can never vote to appropriate public monies during a closed session. Therefore, although most public bodies may vote during a properly convened executive session, any vote to appropriate public monies must be taken in public.
The law also states that an executive session can be attended by members of the public body and any other persons authorized by the public body.
Note that item (f) is often referenced as “personnel,” even though that term does not appear in the grounds for holding executive sessions. Only when the discussion focuses on “a particular person or corporation” in relation to one or more of the topics listed in that provision is an executive session permitted.
After the meeting — minutes
If you cannot attend a meeting, you can still find out what actions were taken, because the Open Meetings Law requires that minutes of both open meetings and executive sessions must be compiled and made available (106).
Minutes of an open meeting must consist of “a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon.” Minutes of executive sessions must consist of “a record or summary of the final determination” of action that was taken, “and the date and vote thereon.” Therefore, if, for example, a public body merely discusses a matter during executive session, but takes no action, minutes of an executive session need not be compiled; however, if action is taken, minutes of the action taken must be compiled and made available.
It is also important to point out that the Freedom of Information Law requires that a voting record must be compiled that identifies how individual members voted in every instance in which a vote is taken. Consequently, minutes that refer to a four to three vote must also indicate who voted in favor, and who voted against. The law does not require the approval of minutes, but directs that minutes of open meetings be prepared and disclosed within two weeks.