OPEN MEETINGS LAW AND MEETING AGENDAS/ DOCUMENTS Fire districts and other governmental boards which conduct meetings are required to make the written agendas that have been set for the meeting available to the public so that members of the public attending board meetings can follow along as the particular board conducts its business during the meeting. This process is provided for under Public Officers Law §103. The statute was recently amended by Chapter 481 of the Laws of 2021 [A-1228-A; S-1150-A] which was signed into law by Governor Hochul on October 19, 2021. The amendment did not create the requirement to provide access to meeting agendas and documents. It reduces the level of discretion given to the local Board with regard to the manner in which it makes these agendas and documents available to the public.
The agenda and document must be made available to the extent practicable “at least 24 hours prior to the meeting”. “At least 24 hours prior to the meeting” replaces “as determined by the agency or the department” in the amendment. These records must also be available to the public on the fire district website, if the fire district maintains a regularly and routinely updated website and uses a high-speed internet connection. As we know, fire districts are not required to maintain websites. However, when a fire district does maintain a website Public Officers Law §103 is just one example of how the law places additional requirements on the fire district by virtue of it maintaining such a website.
It is also important to remember that Public Officers Law §103 does not just apply the aforementioned requirements to the document we describe as an “agenda” wherein a list of issues to be discussed by the Board at the meeting is provided. The statute references agency records that would be available under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) which will be the subject of discussion at the board meeting. Thus, any proposed resolution, law, rule, regulation or any amendment thereto that is to be the subject of a discussion at the meeting should also be available to the public based upon the above described time period.
This process in many ways is an extension of the rights granted under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Thus, the same rules which set reasonable fees for the provision of copies of documents under FOIL would apply to requests for these documents. However, Public Officers Law §103 is meant to facilitate access to these documents. This means a process must be in place to make the documents available that night at the meeting. Normally, under FOIL the fire district secretary as the district records access officer will have several days to process a FOIL request. Public Officers Law §103 envisions a procedure in place to provide access and collect any fees at the meeting if fees are to be charged.
Clearly, these rules place additional burdens on the fire district secretary as the secretary must plan to make the records available, process requests for records, and in some instances make copies of records that can be distributed during the meeting. This can cause a meeting to be delayed if the secretary must both maintain the minutes of the meeting and make copies of documents being requested by those in attendance.
Of course, it is important to remember that this whole process has not been established by Chapter 481 of the Laws of 2021. The Chapter has merely added the requirement that to the extent practicable the secretary must be ready to provide meeting documents and the agenda upon request at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.