Note: This page covers information specific to New York. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The New York Open Meetings Law ("OML") provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in New York. The law entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes. For more detailed information about New York open meetings law, please consult the New York Committee on Open Government's "Your Right to Know" Guide and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: New York.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The OML covers public bodies. The law defines a "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 the state or for an agency or department thereof." N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 102(2). A "quorum" just means a majority of members of the body, which is the number needed to take formal action on a matter of public business.
A "public body" can be part of state, county, or municipal government, and the state legislature is covered. Public bodies share two salient features. First, they must be made of two or more members who act jointly on public business. Thus, the law does not cover government officials acting in an individual capacity, like the governor or a mayor, when they meet with subordinates. Second, a public body must perform a governmental function for the state or an agency of the state, such as cities, counties, towns, villages, and school districts. Examples of public bodies include state boards and commissions, city councils, town boards, village boards of trustees, and school boards. The law also applies to committees and subcommittees of these groups when they are made up solely of members of the public body. The OML does not apply to the judiciary or federal government bodies.
Consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: New York for more information on what public bodies are covered.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by New York law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute an "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). The OML defines a "meeting" as "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business, including the use of videoconferencing for attendance and participation by the members of the public body." N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 102(1). To have a meeting, there must be a "quorum" of members present. As noted above, a "quorum" is just a majority of the members of a public body. A gathering may constitute a "meeting" even if a public body takes no formal action -- it applies to any gathering where a quorum is present to discuss or deal with a matter of public business, regardless of what the gathering is called. The term applies to information-gathering and fact-finding sessions, as well as deliberations and debate about policy and proposed decisions. It does not apply to chance social or ceremonial gatherings.
The OML authorizes public bodies to use videoconferencing for conducting meetings, provided that the public body provides advance notice and allows the public to attend at any of the meeting locations. Public bodies may not use email or other electronic means to circumvent the requirement that meetings be open to public.
What Are Your Rights?
The OML gives the "general public" the right to attend the meetings of public bodies, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. New York law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend.
The right to attend meetings does not include a right to participate or comment. A public body may permit you to speak at open meetings, but does not have to do so.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, New York law requires public bodies to give advance notice of their meetings. If a meeting is scheduled at least one week ahead of time, the public body must post notice at least seventy-two hours in advance. The public body must post the notice in a public location (previously designated) and deliver notice to the "news media." It is not clear exactly what "news media" means and whether it could include non-traditional journalists and other online publishers. The notice must contain the time and place of the meeting, but need not contain an agenda. If the public body will hold the meeting via videoconference, the notice must indicate 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. See N.Y Pub. Off. Law § 104.
When a meeting is scheduled less than one week in advance, the public body must give notice to the public and the news media at "a reasonable time" prior to the meeting. N.Y Pub. Off. Law § 104. What time period qualifies as a "reasonable time" in advance will vary based on the circumstances.
Minutes and Recordings
The OML requires public bodies to record minutes of their meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection and copying. Proposed minutes must be available for public inspection within two weeks of the meeting.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see New York Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. If a public body wants to hold a closed or "executive" session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the OML, a public body may hold an executive session when it is dealing with one of eight subject-area exemptions found in N.Y. Pub. Off. Law § 105. The eight exemptions are for meetings that will involve:
- matters which would imperil the public safety if disclosed;
- any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;
- information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
- discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
- collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law;
- 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;
- the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
- the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by the public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value of the real property or securities.
The exemptions make it permissible for a public body to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require the public body to do so. To close a session, a public body must identify the exemption justifying closure and follow these steps:
- A member must move during an open meeting to enter into executive session;
- The motion must identify generally the subject or subjects to be considered; and
- A majority of the total membership of the public body must vote to enter into executive session.
A public body must keep and make publicly available minutes of executive sessions, but they need only contain "a record or summary of the final determination" of action taken during executive session and "the date and vote thereon." N.Y Pub. Off. Law § 106. Therefore, if a public body takes no final action in executive session, it does not need to record minutes for that session.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
Under New York law, any "aggrieved person" may file a lawsuit in New York state court for violations of the OML. Any member of the public probably could qualify as an "aggrieved person" because the OML grants rights of attendance, notice, and access to minutes to all members of the public. If you succeed in a lawsuit, you can obtain a court order requiring that a meeting or meetings be made open to the public in the future. You can also obtain a court order invalidating the actions of a public body taken in violation of the OML. If you go to court and win, the court may order the losing public body to pay your attorneys' fees, but the court is not required to do so. See N.Y Pub. Off. Law § 107.
In the event that you are denied access to a meeting or class of meetings, you probably want to pursue an informal resolution before filing a lawsuit, which ordinarily is a costly and slow solution. You should contact the public body in question and inform it that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the public body continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.