Enforcement of New York state’s Open Meetings Law

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

What can be done if a public body holds a secret meeting? What if a public body makes a decision in private that should have been made in public?

Any “aggrieved” person can bring a lawsuit. Since the law says that meetings are open to the general public, a person may be aggrieved if improperly excluded from a meeting or if an executive session was improperly held.

Upon a judicial challenge, a court has the power to declare either that the public body violated the Open Meetings Law and/or declare the action taken void (107). If the court determines that a public body has violated the law, it has the authority to require the members of the public body to receive training given by staff of the Committee. A court also has the authority to award reasonable attorney fees to the successful party. This means that if you go to court and you win, a court may (but need not) reimburse you for your expenditure of legal fees. If, on the other hand, the court found that a public body voted in private “in material violation” of the law “or that substantial deliberations occurred in private” that should have occurred in public, the court would be required to award costs and attorney’s fees to the successful party. A mandatory award of attorney’s fees would apply only when secrecy is the issue.

It is noted that an unintentional failure to fully comply with the notice requirements “shall not alone be grounds for invalidating action taken at a meeting of a public body.”

The site of meetings

As specified earlier, all meetings of a public body are open to the general public. The law requires that public bodies make reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in facilities that permit “barrier-free physical access” to physically handicapped persons, and that meetings are held in rooms that can “adequately accommodate” the volume of members of the public who wish to attend (103).

Exemptions from the law

The Open Meetings Law does not apply to:

(1) judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings, except proceedings of zoning boards of appeals;

(2) deliberations of political committees, conferences and caucuses; or

(3) matters made confidential by federal or state law (108).

Stated differently, the law does not apply to proceedings before a court or before a public body that acts in the capacity of a court, to political caucuses, or to discussions concerning matters that might be made confidential under other provisions of law. For example, federal law requires that records identifying students be kept confidential. As such, a discussion of records by a school board identifiable to a particular student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law that would be exempt from the Open Meetings Law.

Public participation and recording meetings

The Open Meetings Law provides the public with the right to attend meetings of public bodies, but it is silent concerning the ability of members of the public to speak or otherwise participate. Although public bodies are not required to permit the public to speak at their meetings, many have chosen to do so. In those instances, it has been advised that a public body should do so by adopting reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.

Public bodies are required to allow meetings to be photographed, broadcast, webcast or otherwise recorded as long as the equipment used to do so is not disruptive or obtrusive. If the public body adopts rules regarding such activities, they must be reasonable and conspicuously posted, and provided to those in attendance upon request (103(d)).

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