On June 5, 2019, the Observer published an article on a potential Open Meetings Law violation by the Chautauqua County Planning Board. The article alleges that, at a June meeting, the Board was considering an application involving the acquisition of land for soccer fields for Jamestown Community College. Before presenting on the plan, the College’s president allegedly asked if members of the media were present.
When the Board learned that a reporter from the Observer was present, it voted to go into executive session to discuss “privileged information.” However, the Board’s description of the topic that it sought to discuss in private — “privileged information” — was probably not specific enough to comply with state law.
Pursuant to New York’s Open Meetings Law, all meetings of public bodies must be open to attendance by the general public. The law only allows public bodies to exclude the public from portions of its meetings (known as “executive sessions”) to discuss eights categories of topics. The law further establishes that, to enter an executive session, a public body must: (1) vote to do so during a properly noticed and open meeting; and (2) identify the general subjects to be considered.
Under the law, “privileged information” is not specific enough of an explanation of the topics to be discussed during an executive session. To more fully comply with the law, the Board should have explained that it was going into executive session to discuss “the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property” and that “publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.” In a situation like this, if a Board can give the public more details about the topic to be discussed during the executive session without affecting the value of the property — such as the purpose of the proposed acquisition, who the property would be purchased from, or the location of the property under consideration — its decision is more likely to comply with the law.
Compliance with the Open Meetings Law is extremely important, both to the public and to the public entities. From a policy perspective, open meetings help protect the integrity of public entities by ensuring that public business is conducted in a transparent manner. For businesses and local residents, open meetings help the public stay informed about what’s happening in their communities.
For public bodies, though, the risks of failing to comply with the Open Meetings Law can be significant, and a mistake can be expensive. Under certain circumstances, courts are empowered to (1) declare that a public body has violated the, (2) require the public body to participate in a training on its obligations under the Open Meetings Law, (3) annul any action taken by the public entity in violation of the law, and (4) award a successful party the costs and attorney fees associated with successfully prosecuting an Open Meetings Law violation.
If you are concerned about how a potential Open Meetings Law violation may affect you, your business, or your neighborhood, or if you are a member of a public body that has been accused of an Open Meetings Law violation, be sure to contact an experienced attorney for help.
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