Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 12, 2020

NY Appeals Court Holds that Members of the Public had Standing Under the Open Meetings Law

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq.

A New York appellate court held in Matter of McCrory v. Village of Mamaroneck Bd. of Trustees that members of the public who claimed to have been excluded from municipal meetings had standing under the Open Meetings Law and were not required to demonstrate any additional “personal injury” to prove their aggrievement.

The case was brought by residents of the Village of Mamaroneck who alleged that they were unlawfully excluded from a meeting of the village board due to its failure to comply with requirements for notice, executive session, and the recording of meeting minutes. The trial court dismissed the petition on the basis of standing, reasoning that “being a member of the general public, a taxpayer, or resident of the municipality, in and of itself, is insufficient to confer standing to raise an alleged Open Meetings Law violation.”

The Appellate Division, Second Department reversed the trial court’s decision on appeal, emphasizing the broad scope and intent of the Open Meetings Law to ensure “that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.” The court also noted the relevant text of the Open Meetings Law, which states that “any aggrieved person shall have standing….”

While the concept of “aggrievement” has been thoroughly addressed in “a wide spectrum of cases,” the court acknowledged that “case law on the issue of who has standing… to enforce the provisions of the Open Meetings Law is sparse.” The court was nevertheless able to discern from previous cases that aggrievement under the Open Meetings Law contemplates an injury that is inherently public in nature. InMatter of Friends of Pine Bush v Planning Bd. of City of Albany, for example, the court refused to dismiss an Open Meetings Law challenge for lack of standing because “[a]s residents of the city, the individual petitioners are persons aggrieved by a decision of the planning board….” Another case, Matter of Zehner v Board of Educ. of the Jordan-Elbridge Cent. School Dist., recognized that a member of the public who was allegedly excluded from a meeting was within the “zone of interest” protected by the Open Meetings Law and was sufficiently aggrieved to establish standing.

Instead of relying on cases decided under the Open Meetings Law, the trial court focused on the “injury in fact” standard applied in land use cases, which requires petitioners to allege a direct injury distinct from that of the public at large to establish aggrievement. But as the appellate court explained, the overriding purpose and intent of the Open Meetings Law “dictate[s] that the harm or injury is the alleged unlawful exclusion of the public from a municipal meeting.” The trial court’s analysis was counterintuitive and excessively restrictive, the court concluded, and it “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.”

Matter of McCrory v Village of Mamaroneck Bd. of Trustees, 2020 NY Slip Op 00864 (NY App Div 2d Dept 2/5/20).

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