February 12, 2020

Standing to maintain a proceeding alleging a violation of the Open Meetings Law

Noting that case law addressing the issue of standing to commence a proceeding/action to enforce the provisions of the Open Meetings Law [OML]* is sparse, the Appellate Division, citing Matter of Sanna v Lindenhurst Bd. of Educ., 85 AD2d 157, said in fashioning a remedy for a violation of the OML the reviewing court must focus solely upon the public injury," noting than in Sanna the Appellate Division "expressly centered on the 'public injury' or injury to the 'citizenry' of which Sanna was a member, not on her status as the subject of the board's deliberation.** 

In Friends of Pine Bush v Planning Bd. of City of Albany (71 AD2d 780), Appellate Division, Third Department, found that "[a]s residents of the city, the individual petitioners are persons aggrieved by a decision of the planning board and thus have standing to bring this proceeding", while in Zehner v Board of Educ. of the Jordan-Elbridge Cent. School Dist., 29 Misc 3d 1206[A], the court determined that, as a lawful attendee of the meeting in question, the Zehner was an aggrieved party and had standing to challenge the school board's activities.

Guided by the settled principle that "[w]hen presented with a question of statutory interpretation, a court's primary consideration is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the Legislature," the Appellate Division opined that the purpose of the OML and the intent of the Legislature in enacting that law dictate that the harm or injury is the alleged unlawful exclusion of the public from a municipal meeting. Citing Public Officers Law § 100, The court said that the OML "plainly confers upon the public the right to attend certain meetings of public bodies."

Accordingly, the harm or injury of being excluded from municipal meetings that should be open to the public is sufficient to establish standing in cases based upon alleged violations of the OML. To require a petitioner to demonstrate an additional personal damage or injury to his or her civil, personal, or property rights in order to assert a violation of the OML would, in effect, interject a counter-intuitive restriction upon the general citizenry's access and participatory freedoms to attend certain meetings of a public body. 

Such a requirement or condition, said the Appellate Division, "would undermine, erode, and emasculate the stated objective of this statute, which was designed to benefit the citizens of this state and the general commonweal, assure the public's right to be informed, and prevent secrecy by governmental bodies."

The Appellate Division the held that the branch of the Village Board's motion to dismiss the Appellants' petition/complaint in this action for lack of standing should be denied. 

The Appellate Division then noted that it found "only that the Appellants established their standing to maintain this proceeding/action" and took no position on the merits of the remaining allegations asserted by the parties, "including whether the Village Board, in fact, violated the Open Meetings Law by excluding the appellants or whether the Village Board properly conducted executive sessions."

* Public Officers Law, Article 7.

** The Court of Appeals later affirmed Appellate Division's decision and order in Sanna, without expressly addressing the issue of standing (Matter of Sanna v Lindenhurst Bd. of Educ., 58 NY2d 626).

The decision is posted on the Internet at: