JAMESTOWN – An attorney for the city of Jamestown says there was no violation of New York Sate Open Meetings Law (NYSOML) by the Jamestown City Council’s fiance committee on March 8.
Earlier this week, WRFA reported that the city council violated state law when an apparent meeting of the finance committee wasn’t made public; nor was a public notice sent out to announce the meeting was going to take place. The committee meeting apparently took place prior to Monday night’s full council work session, which was open to the public.
The public only learned the finance committee meeting took place after it was acknowledged by finance committee chair Kim Ecklund.
“Finance met earlier to discuss a couple items, one of which I’m going to bring the mayor on to discuss in detail with Ryan – Parks, Recreation, and Conservation Discussion that involves summer staffing and programming,” Ecklund informed the full council during the work session.
Mayor Eddie Sundquist also acknowledged the meeting when updating the full council on a plan to reopen city parks.
“Those were the things we were looking at when we go together with the Parks and with our Public Works departent and with finance, to talk about how do we make sure the parks are fully open this year,” Sundquist told council members.
Based on these statements, WRFA surmised the aforementioned committee meeting did indeed take place.
Following the full work session, we contacted Council President Tony Dolce for confirmation of the meeting, and he explained it did take place. When told that it was likely a violation of NYSOML because it was not conducted in public, he explained it was an impromptu meeting, called by the mayor, and that he didn’t think it was in violation.
“The Mayor called the very brief meeting to update the finance committee before it was discussed to the full council,” Dolce explained. “There was no intent to hide anything. It was purely informational and completely discussed in open session [by the full council]. We did not discuss anything else that was on the official agenda that was submitted and reported on in the meeting. Again no vote or action was taken. It’s no different than if we were meeting in person and he called us in his office before he brought it to the full council and the public.”
Also following the full work session, WRFA sent an email to the city clerk’s office, requesting the minutes of the committee meeting once they were available. The city posts the meeting minutes of all committee meetings that take place, and will also post the minutes verbatim when a conversation or discussion takes place. When verbatim minutes are not provided, the meeting minute still reflect any proposed resolutions that have come forward.
The city responded to WRFA’s request for meeting minutes through assistant corporation counsel Ben Haskins. Haskins said there were not meeting minutes because the same discussion on the same items occurred during the full work session, which was public.
He also said the meeting involving the finance committee was not subject to NYSOML, adding that it was more of an “informational” meeting than an official committee meeting:
“A few hours prior to the public city council work session, the mayor requested a meeting to inform members of the finance committee of updates regarding the re-hiring of a position within the city parks department. The purpose of the request was for informational purposes only so that the mayor could be more help to the public and Council regarding the matter. It is routine and common for Council members to ask the Mayor questions on items prior to meetings. Examples of this include requests for more financial data or a particular type of cost. Rather than be unable to provide this information during the meeting, the Mayor’s office would like a ‘heads up’ to properly address any such concerns with data. This meeting was an example of one where the mayor sought to head off any informational deficiencies. This meeting was not a formal meeting of the finance committee. The members of the Finance Committee had no obligation to attend and at no point was a quorum of the City Council’s membership, the amount required to take official action and to invoke New York’s Open Meetings Law, present in the room.”
– Ben Haskins, in a written response to WRFA
“Informational” or otherwise, WRFA maintains the committee meeting violated NYSOML.
For one, a quorum of the full council is not necessary. NYSOML provides the ground rules for any “public body” and it defines “public body” as, “Any entity, for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for a Municipal Corporation (including the city of Jamestown) or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body.” As a result of this definition, the city finance committee is subject to NYSOL and a quorum of the full council is not necessary, so long as the quorum of the committee itself is present. And according to statements from both the committee chair and mayor, along with the council president, a meeting of the committee did indeed take place.
Second, any gathering of a quorum of a public body (including council committees) for the purpose of conducting public business constitutes a “meeting” subject to NYSOML. Whether or not any action is taken is irrelevant. This was laid out in a 1978 Court of Appeals ruling [Orange Pub v. Newburgh, (1978)], which held that any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business constitutes a “meeting” subject to NYSOML, whether or not there is an intent to take action, and regardless of the manner in which a gathering may be characterized.
Additionally, as Orange Pub. v. Newburgh also points out, whether or not committee members had an obligation to meet is irrelevant. If they gather to conduct city business, regardless of location, time or place, nor because of a sense of obligation or lack thereof, the gathering still qualifies as a meeting subject to NYSOML.
Finally, it has been a standard practice for the city clerk to take meeting minutes of all public committee meetings, even when the issues discussed during committee are also discussed during the full council work session. Some committee meeting minutes are even provided verbatim when discussion occurs.
Regardless, WRFA has reached out to the New York State Committee on Open Government to provide a formal ruling on the matter. The committee replied to our request, stating that “Committee on Open Government have prepared a number of advisory opinions relating to committees that consist solely of members of the larger public body as well as opinions relating to the Open Meetings Law applying to any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business, regardless of intent, or lack thereof, to take action.”
Each advisory opinion upholds WRFA’s belief that the March 8 Finance Committee meeting did, in fact, violate open meetings law, despite the city claiming it did not.
Advisory Opinions cited by the Committee on Open Government: