RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Open Meetings Law and Social Distancing Requirements - 07/06/2021
Now that Open Meetings Law modifications have been lifted, are we still required to maintain physi...
Posted: Tuesday, July 6, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Now that Open Meetings Law modifications have been lifted, are we still required to maintain physical distancing for board meetings? We have a fifteen member board which makes it difficult to spread our trustees out. I understand that we can ask trustees whether they have been vaccinated: If all are vaccinated, do we have to maintain physical distancing? If some of them are not vaccinated, do we required all the trustees to wear masks? Do we provide physical distancing for the ones who are not fully vaccinated? I would like to host a staff luncheon ( I understand that is now allowable) but some of my staff are not vaccinated. If it is held outside, do we have to maintain physical distancing measures? What about holding the luncheon inside?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

This question comes at a very challenging time.[1]

The question is difficult because right now, the World Health Organization is looking at the "Delta Variant" of COVID-19 and telling the world to consider continuing to use masks and social distancing while inside.[2]

New York, of course, after a 6-day scramble, started following the Center for Disease Control's May 13 "surprise" guidelines stating that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks or social distance indoors.[3]  And as of July 1, 2021, the state announced that almost all COVID-related restrictions were lifted.[4]

Where does this leave us?

Throughout the Pandemic, when asked about how to interpret and follow law, regulations, and Executive Orders governing the state's COVID response, my watchword has been: "Safety first."

After that, I have listed what is required at that point in time, and then referred libraries and cultural institutions to resources about how they can develop a Safety Plan[5] crafted to suit their unique identity (by "unique identity" I mean things like a large library with outdated HVAC and windows that don't open, has different considerations than a small library with assurance of constant fresh air).

With so much uncertainly at this time, my tired playbook is getting tested.  But I'll use it to try and answer each of the member's questions:

Now that Open Meetings Law modifications have been lifted, are we still required to maintain physical distancing for board meetings?

If your (now optional, but if the board keeps it in place, enforceable) Safety Plan still requires physical distancing, then yes.

We have a fifteen member board which makes it difficult to spread our trustees out. I understand that we can ask trustees whether they have been vaccinated: If all are vaccinated, do we have to maintain physical distancing?

If your Safety Plan has opted to continue using the NYS May 19th guidance, and the meeting is not exceeding the occupancy threshold, no, you do not.  HOWEVER, there is nothing to stop the board from deciding that, in the interest of safety and enabling each trustee to take whatever steps they need to feel safe, they are going to allow some trustees to attend from a remote location.[6]

If some of them are not vaccinated, do we required all the trustees to wear masks?

The WHO would (currently[7]) say: yes.

The CDC and the State of NY would (currently[8]) say: no.

For what it's worth, I tend to follow the most cautious reputable source at any given time (so would say: there is ample ground for your Safety Plan to require this, while there is also ample ground for your board to revise the Safety Plan to require only the bare minimum of advised precautions).

Do we provide physical distancing for the ones who are not fully vaccinated?

If that is at all possible, I strongly support that idea.  Being able to show an institution took the time to consider the best way to keep its community safe is good from any angle: mission, legal compliance, and employee/community relations.

I would like to host a staff luncheon (I understand that is now allowable[9]) but some of my staff are not vaccinated. If it is held outside, do we have to maintain physical distancing measures? What about holding the luncheon inside?

It pains me to say it, but sometimes, the law is not the best guide as to what to do!  Legally, if your library is still using the May 19th NYS Guidance, your Safety Plan can allow for this to happen, if you follow the required prescriptions.

However, it makes sense to me to "read the room" and see if such a luncheon would be a team-building exercise, or (because some employees might not feel at ease eating in close proximity to others) risk bad feelings and alienation.  If everyone cannot attend with the same level of comfort, it might be better to come up with an alternate bonding exercise.[10]

Conclusion

I truly wish I could offer more definite guidance.  The truth is, libraries--even with the return to the strict requirements of the Open Meetings Law--have many options for how to proceed.  So as tired as it may sound, put "safety first," and all things will follow from there.

Coda

Since the Powers That Be out there move quickly, here are some snapshots of the current guidance I am referencing in this answer.

Snapshot of the current WHO Guidance:

Screenshot of current WHO Guidance as of July 6 2021.

Snapshot of NY's July 1 announcement:

Screenshot of NY.gov announcement from July 1, 2021.

 

Snapshot of New York's May 19th Guidance (now largely optional):

Screenshot of NY's guidance from May 19, 2021, which is now optional

 

Snapshot of current (June 10) OSHA guidance:

Screenshot of OSHA guidance from June 10, 2021.

 



[1] Has any date since March of 2020 not been in a "challenging time?"  I have a dim recollection of July of 2020 being semi-okay.

[5] Whether they were required to have one, or opted to have one.

[7] As of July 2, 2021, at 11:30 AM.  Go ahead, WHO, hit me with a change-up, I can take it.

[8] As of July 2, 2021, at 11:30 AM.  Go ahead, CDC and NY Department of Health, hit me with a change-up, I can take it just as well as I could at 11:30!

[9] This answer is complicated enough, I am not going to tackle the fiscal considerations of hosting events for staff!  See 1990 Comptroller Opinion #144 (May 15, 1990)

[10] This part might be a better question for the "Ask the HR Expert" service, since my idea of bonding is listening to Supreme Court Oral argument while providing color commentary (this is why my paralegal plans our events).

Tags: Board of Trustees, COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccine, Emergency Response, Open Meetings Law, Safety Plan

Topic: Open Meetings Law and end of NYS' Emergency Status - 06/30/2021
First question: With the expiration of the Executive Orders on June 24th, 2021, including the Orde...
Posted: Wednesday, June 30, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

First question: With the expiration of the Executive Orders on June 24th, 2021, including the Order modifying the requirements of the Open Meetings Law, are libraries back to the "old way" of conducting trustee meetings?

Follow-up question: If the answer to the first question is "yes," does this mean that trustees who still want/need to attend remotely from home must disclose their address in the meeting notice?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

First question: Yes...with the expiration of the Executive Orders on June 24th, including the Order modifying the Open Meetings law,[1] things are "back to normal."

Or, as the Committee on Open Government, the authority on the State's Open Meetings Law (OML), put it:

Screenshot from NYS' Open Meetings' website that says authority for remote meetings ends June 24, 2021.

 

So, does this mean "trustees who still want/need to attend remotely from home must disclose their address in the meeting notice?"

Various case law and commentary about the OML has confirmed that when a public body needs to meet via teleconference, the public must be able to attend from any remote location "calling in" to the meeting, and that location should be part of the meeting notice.[2]

Or, as the COOG put it in Advisory Opinion 5535 in 2018:

"So long as the public is permitted to attend at any location at which a member participates and can observe the members wherever they may be, I believe that the members may participate and be counted for purposes of attaining a quorum and for voting, and that a meeting may validly be held." [emphasis added]

For large public bodies such as the Regents, the New York Power Authority, and other entities that must hold publicly accessible meetings, and whose board members may reside in far-flung areas of the state, the use of publicly accessible call-in sites comes with an IT team and a budget.

For a public library, whose members generally reside within that library's area of service, this "back to normal" pretty much means that you're back to meetings in person.

Of course, under the Not-for-Profit Corporation law (which, along with the Education Law, governs the conduct of library meetings), a library board of trustees is allowed to conduct meetings telephonically.[3]  When coupled with the requirements of the OML, however, that latitude is severely reigned in--since whatever space is used for the remote call-in must be accessible to the public, and included in the notice.

For this reason, unless a library trustee is very comfortable inviting the public into their home, I advise against using the "dial in from home" option.[4]

NOTE:  This answer does not consider if a trustee needs to attend remotely due to it being an accommodation under the ADA.  That is a separate and critical question; for now, I'll simply say that adherence to the OML should not rule out consideration of ADA issues.

The transparency created by Education Law 260-a's requirement that public libraries abide by the Open Meetings Law is laudable--but is also based on older notions of technology.  Now that the State of New York has lived under different rules for over a year, we might see some changes in legislation.

But for now, we're "back to normal."

I hope this is helpful.

 



[1] Allowing them to be held via teleconference so long as the meeting is accessible to the public, recorded, and transcribed.  For more comments on this, see "Ask the Lawyer" https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/raqs/120 and https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/raqs/185.

[3] See NFPCL Section 708(c) "Unless otherwise restricted by the certificate of incorporation or the by-laws, any one or more members of the board or of any committee thereof who is not physically present at a meeting of the board or a committee may participate by means of a conference telephone or similar communications equipment or by electronic video screen communication. Participation by such means shall constitute presence in person at a meeting as long as all persons participating in the meeting can hear each other at the same time and each director can participate in all matters before the board, including, without limitation, the ability to propose, object to, and vote upon a specific action to be taken by the board or committee."

[4] I recently saw a very good presentation on parliamentary procedure for library boards.  The presenter commented that disclosure of home addresses should not be made, due to safety concerns.  I absolutely agree with that caution, but must emphasize that if a trustee calls in from a remote location, with the emergency modification of the law over, the OML requires that all "locations" of the meeting (including a remote call-in site) must be disclosed.

Tags: Board of Trustees, COVID-19, Emergency Response, Executive Order, Open Meetings Law

Topic: Conflict of interest from legal proceedings - 06/23/2021
I serve on the board of an association library. My family has to consider legal proceedings aga...
Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

I serve on the board of an association library.

My family has to consider legal proceedings against a school district that provides funds to the library through a public vote (as required by law, when the District puts the ballot out, the amount for the library is separate). Would my personal legal proceedings pose a "conflict of interest" with my position as a trustee? Is there any foreseeable conflict?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Before I answer, I would like to thank this unnamed trustee for bringing forward this important issue.  Dealing with personal legal matters is rarely easy; remembering to factor in consideration of one's volunteer obligations at the same time is impressive.

On its surface, this question is a fairly simple exercise:[1] does the status of a library trustee as a plaintiff against the district supporting the library create a "conflict of interest" that would violate the library's bylaws, ethics, or the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law ("NFPCL")?

To address that question, one must first understand what is meant by a "conflict of interest."

The concept “conflict of interest” sounds simple, but often quickly gets, as they say these days, “complicated.”

Why is that?  For a library,[2]  the concept of a "conflict of interest" could consist of layered elements like the petals of one, single (but complex) rose...or it could be a complex, multi-variety bouquet.

What can comprise this bouquet?

Let's start with the rose.

Section 715-a of the NFPCL requires every charitable corporation in New York (a category that includes most libraries), to adopt and enforce a policy "to ensure that its directors, officers and key persons act in the corporation's best interest and comply with applicable legal requirements, including but not limited to the requirements set forth in section seven hundred fifteen of [the NFPCL]."

Let's peel back the petals on this first thorny flower.  In one sentence, 715-a lists a broad expectation (acting in "the corporation's best interest"), a broad mandate ("comply with legal requirements"), and one very specific law to follow (NPFCL 715, which bars "related party transactions").[3]

Let's take that last petal first.  What is a "related party transaction?"

According to the NFPCL's "Definitions" section, a "related party transaction" means "any transaction, agreement or any other arrangement in which a related party[4] has a financial interest and in which the corporation or any affiliate of the corporation[5] is a participant..."

Based on the information provided, the trustee submitting the question is not in a "related party transaction".  The suit is not against the library, and in this scenario, the district who will be named in the suit is not an "affiliate" of the library.  Since the district is required to put the tax vote on the ballot (the school board has no control over this; it has to put the ballot up as proposed by the library board), the act of using the district to float the vote to the public does not create a relationship that could serve as the basis of a conflict.

Let's take the middle petal: "legal requirements?"  Is there any "legal requirement" that a trustee not bring an unrelated legal action against a school district who facilitates a library budget vote?  No.[6]

And finally, that first, most fraught petal: "the corporation's best interest?" --We're going to leave that for last.

What other “blooms” could join, and affect, this "conflict of interest" bouquet?

  • The library' bylaws
  • The library's customized "Conflict of Interest" policy[7]
  • An association library's trustee oath of office[8]
  • A grant or other contractual obligation that creates a temporary definition of a conflict
  • The library's strategic plan, or other planning document that would create a conflict as defined by law, bylaw, or policy.[9]

Fortunately, no matter how many blossoms in the "conflict of interest" bouquet, the law requires that when the possibility of a conflict arises, it is the board--not the individual trustee--who must assess it.

The NFPCL does that by requiring a board to pass a conflict of interest policy that:

 ...include[s], at a minimum, the following provisions:

  (1) a definition of the circumstances that constitute a conflict of interest;

  (2) procedures for disclosing a conflict of interest or possible conflict of interest to the board or to a committee of the board, and procedures for the board or committee to determine whether a conflict exists;

  (3) a requirement that the person with the conflict of interest not be present at or participate in board or committee deliberation or vote on the matter giving rise to such conflict, provided that nothing in this section shall prohibit the board or a committee from requesting that the person with the conflict of interest present information as background or answer questions at a committee or board meeting prior to the commencement of deliberations or voting relating thereto;

  (4) a prohibition against any attempt by the person with the conflict to influence improperly the deliberation or voting on the matter giving rise to such conflict;

  (5) a requirement that the existence and resolution of the conflict be documented in the corporation's records, including in the minutes of any meeting at which the conflict was discussed or voted upon....
  

So, at the end of the day, no matter how large the "conflict of Interest" bouquet, it is the board, as a whole, who has to sniff out a problem.[10]

In this case, the rub is in that first petal: the requirement that a trustee always act "in the corporation's best interest."

At the surface, there is no conflict whatsoever in this scenario: the school district is not a partner or contractor with the library, and the school board has no discretion about whether or not to put the library's budget on the ballot (they must put it exactly as the library board requests it).[11] Therefore, even if the contemplated lawsuit by the trustee is not taken kindly by the school district's board, there can be no direct negative impact.

Now, however, for a pragmatic answer: in a world where everything is political, and library budgets all the more so, could an adversarial relationship between an individual library trustee and a school district board be in something other than "in the best interest" of the library?

That consideration--and its answer--is not a legal issue.  In this scenario, there is nothing that violates the law, and I have never seen an oath of office, nor a bylaws provision, that would bar trustee service under such circumstances.  Further, as discussed above, even if the school board takes umbrage, they would be powerless to block the requested ballot item.

However, there is a "soft" consideration here that goes beyond the law.  I categorize these types of concerns not as "legal" issues, but that dreaded concept: "diplomacy."

When it comes to "diplomacy"...could members of a community, including an individual school board member in their individual capacity, decide to take a dim view of a library trustee who is suing their district, and try to punish the library?  They shouldn't, but as individuals, speaking just for themselves, they could...they absolutely could.  And even though their negative actions couldn't block the budget vote, it could influence a vote in non-official ways.

That said, the possibility of such personal vengeance in no way creates a legal conflict of interest.  So, for the reasons set forth above, a board doing an assessment of this situation--unless their policy specifically includes a unique definition or example that bars trustees sowing bad PR, even incidentally--would likely not determine that it constitutes a forbidden conflict.

Of course, a trustee may decide that they have enough on their plate, just being a plaintiff in a stressful lawsuit, and resign to avoid the (real or possible) stress of the situation.  Or the board and trustee may engage in some practical "risk management" and mutually agree that, given a high likelihood it could impact the board-to-board relationship, it is best if the trustee steps down for a time.  But such an option would not be required by law and would be based on pragmatism...and it could only be effected with the consent of the trustee.

And THAT is my answer to this very important question. 

I wish the trustee who posed it both 1) a thoughtful and supportive library board, and 2) a school board with the ability to maturely and completely compartmentalize legal issues from diplomatic ones.

Thank you.

  

 



[1] For purposes of this question, we'll assume that the only "support" the district provides to the library is the budget ballot (there is no MOU or even informal agreement for other assistance, like overflow parking, or hosting the annual fund-raiser).

[2] Public or association, in this case.

[3] There is no case law that picks apart how the commas in the sentence impact the interpretation and inter-relation of its required elements; that would be a dream case of mine (not that I wish the need to make that argument on any client of mine).

[4] "Related party" means (i) any director, officer or key person of the corporation or any affiliate of the corporation; (ii) any relative of any individual described in clause (i) of this subparagraph; or (iii) any entity in which any individual described in clauses (i) and (ii) of this subparagraph has a thirty-five percent or greater ownership or beneficial interest or, in the case of a partnership or professional corporation, a direct or indirect ownership interest in excess of five percent. "Relative" of an individual means (i) his or her spouse or domestic partner as defined in section twenty-nine hundred ninety-four-a of the public health law; (ii) his or her ancestors, brothers and sisters (whether whole or half blood), children (whether natural or adopted), grandchildren, great-grandchildren; or (iii) the spouse or domestic partner of his or her brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

[5] In this case, the "corporation" is the library.

[6] I have not read every law passed in New York State, but I am willing to go out on a limb for this one.

[7] As you can see in the NFPCL, not-for-profit corporations have the right to define their own notion of "conflict," so long as the policy meets the requirements of the law.

[8] Only an association library might need to consider this, since the oath required of public libraries does not add to the obligation to be free of conflicts of interest (although it does undergird it).

[9] For instance, if the strategic plan called for the library to enter into a contract with the district in the future.

[10] That's right. The next time your board has to assess if the board chair's cousin getting the winning bid to the parking lot resurfacing job is a conflict, just envision being handed a fragrant mass of lilies and roses!

[11] Education law Section 259, found at https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/EDN/259.

Tags: Association Libraries, Board of Trustees, Ethics, Policy

Topic: Voting rights for non-trustee members - 06/02/2021
Our by-laws name certain committees as committees of the corporation --- "No such committee s...
Posted: Tuesday, June 1, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Our by-laws name certain committees as committees of the corporation --- "No such committee shall have the authority to bind the board. Members of such committees of the corporation, who may be non-trustees, unless otherwise designated, shall be appointed by the President."

Can the non-trustee members of a committee vote if one is called for in the committee? It seems like they could because the committee can't bind the board, however we could see where their vote within a committee might mean that something isn't brought to the full board.

Related to this, should we amend the by-laws to specify them as voting/non-voting members of committees?

Thank you!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

This reply will answer the questions up-front, and then tackle the concern about the full board not seeing a matter since it was voted on in committee in the "background and commentary" section.

The questions:

1.  Can the non-trustee members of a committee vote if one is called for in the committee?

Yes, if a library board has a committee with non-trustee members, those non-trustee members can vote.

2.  Should we amend the by-laws to specify them as voting/non-voting members of committees?

No, there is no need to amend the bylaws.  If the non-trustees are properly appointed committee members, they may vote.  If the non-trustees are not actual committee members but are instead there in an advisory capacity, they should not be referred to as "members" in the first place, and the appointment letter should make that clear.

And now, for some background and commentary.[1]

Back in 2014, the New York Not-for-Profit Corporation law was amended to create two types of board committee:

  • Committees of the Board
  • Committees of the Corporation

As the member points out, "Committees of the Corporation" are committees that--while they might work hard on matters of great importance to the library--cannot "bind" the board...meaning, they can't make "official" decisions final (authorizing a budget, signing a contract, or voting to hire a director).

"Committees of the Board," on the other hand, are authorized to "bind" the board in certain matters, including investments, endowments, employment, and some matters relating to real property.[2]

While this "Committees of the ______" change was quietly revolutionary in many not-for-profit circles,[3] it was already somewhat familiar territory for libraries, because the Education Law already authorized them to have an "Executive Committee" to "transact business of the corporation" between meetings.[4]  In other words, libraries were already used to designating committees with express and binding authority.  This just gave them more options to bring on more participants who were not trustees.

Now, while "Committees of the Corporation" may not be not tasked with the Really Big Decisions, as the member points out, they can still do very important work.

For example: let's say a library has created a "Public Relations Committee" ("of the Corporation") responsible for monitoring and identifying tactics for the library's presence in traditional and social media.  The committee doesn't sign contracts or even write press releases; it simply monitors and issues advice, meeting virtually once a month to review the library's media footprint and track its various metrics.

Based on some observations, the committee decides the library should adopt a "Social Media Policy."[5]  Since the committee can't "bind the board," they can't vote to adopt the policy, but if they vote to do so, they can:

  • Vote to designate a committee member or sub-committee to draft the policy;
  • Draft the policy;
  • Write a memo urging the board to adopt the draft policy;
  • When both are ready, vote to authorize the submission of the draft policy and endorsing memo to the full board.

Now, here's where the member's concern comes in: How does the full board know this work is being done? 

The critical work of committees "of the corporation"--even if they are not "binding" the board--should be connected to that of the full board by a routine report (or meeting minutes) that are "received and filed" by the full board subsequent to every committee meeting.[6] That way, whether or not the committee votes, the board is aware of its work, and what is in the pipeline.  Committee work should never take place in a vacuum; it should always be linked to the operations of the board by reports and minutes.

A high-functioning library board operates like an orchestra--different sections may rehearse separately, and sometimes, there may even be a prima donna moment or two--but the end goal should be harmony. 

A board's various committee types may have different functions, compositions, and authority, but they are all part of that system.  Thank you for a great question that showcases their differences and value.

 



[1] A valid concern.

[2] They can't do everything, though, so proceed with care!

[3] A wild bunch who brandish the word "fiduciary" the way some people wield the term "linebacker."

[5] The special focus of a PR committee, by the way, is why a library may want to bring on some non-trustee "ringers" to help with specific issues (a building committee is another great committee where you might want someone for a non-specific set of skills).

[6] Or at least, whenever the committee meets.  Some committees only meet and act once a year; obviously, that committee only needs to submit one report!

 

Tags: Board of Trustees, Voting, By-laws, Committees

Topic: Paying Director for Trustee Meeting Attendance - 05/28/2021
Our Library Director was hired 5 years ago and has always been paid for her attendance at monthly ...
Posted: Friday, May 28, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Our Library Director was hired 5 years ago and has always been paid for her attendance at monthly Trustee meetings. In 2021 the Town Supervisor stopped this long-standing practice. Our Town pays our Library Director.
 

Is this legal without letting the Trustees and Director prior to stopping the practice?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

"Is this legal?"  Not likely.

But before I say more, I just want to offer a quick primer on how things work at "Ask the Lawyer."

Since the situation depicted in the question could result in legal claims by the Director, the board, and/or even the Town--or be relevant to an audit by the State Comptroller--this is the type of "Ask the Lawyer" question that can only be answered--really answered--under attorney-client privilege.

Why is that?  Because of how "Ask the Lawyer” works.  When questions like this are submitted (questions that ask for advice and guidance for the requesting member and their council, as joint clients[1]), our typical approach is to a) contact the member, b) get any additional information needed to assess the question, and then c) send an attorney-client privileged answer. [2]

After that, if the member consents to it, we create a "generic" answer, channeling the research gathered into general advice that may be useful for a broad audience (of libraries, museums, historical societies, and other regional council members).

This question, of course, presents an issue mostly relevant to public libraries.  And here is the "generic" answer to the scenario presented:

There are a number of factors an attorney needs to dig into in order to answer this question.

First: is the director an hourly employee, or salaried?  If salaried, this question doesn't make much sense,[3] so we'll go with hourly.

Second: Is the director required as part of their job to attend the meeting?  Since they are mostly there in their professional capacity, let's say "yes."

Third:  Did the director, in the past, report the hours into the payroll system, and receive compensation for them?  Let's again say "yes."

Fourth: Has the board consistently performed the aspects of board authority over the position (making the decision to hire, signing the hiring letter, performing annual reviews, working with Civil Service to amend the job description when needed, effecting disciplinary action and plans of improvement if needed, approving payroll,[4] approving scheduled vacation times, overseeing time off for disability, effecting termination)?  Again, from the scenario, we'll say "yes," which means the board has not laid a foundation for the lines of employment to be blurred (they are undisputedly in charge).

Fifth: Has the previous payroll, which included compensation for attending the meetings, been approved per the requirements of the Civil Service law?[5]  While that may be something happening subtly behind the scenes, based on the scenario, again it is probably "yes."

If we added those details to the scenario, I would see no basis for a town official to be able to unilaterally decide what tasks may or may not be compensated.

In fact, the only way I could see a town official being able to (legitimately) do such a thing is if the library board had expressly delegated all authority for supervision and payroll oversight to the town...something that would be a dangerous practice, since it would seriously undercut the library board's autonomy and authority.

The courts in New York, the State Comptroller,[6] the State Attorney General, and local Civil Service agencies all grasp the nuances of public library boards' authority, but it can be a struggle for newer public officers.  The autonomy and authority of a library board can often feel like a square peg to a public official used to only round holes.  That is why it is important to nurture the relationship routinely, deliberately, and carefully.[7]

What can be done in this case?  To avoid a claim of unpaid wages, a library board would need to develop a plan to put things right.  There are a number of ways to approach this, but I'd start out by enlisting the help of the local Civil Service, who can confirm that the library is a separate employer, with an obligation to confirm their employees' hours.[8] In the alternative, a good resource who may take a similar technical approach could be the municipality's attorney.

Since all that could take some time, if the board wants to vote to adjust the payroll (ensuring the payment is properly subject to taxes and withholding, etc.), the board may also want to enlist the help of the State Comptroller (the authority that audits public library payroll from time-to-time).  How would a library do that?  Prior to any adjustment, it would be a good idea to confirm the basis for the correcting payment in writing with the Comptroller, after which the board could resolve to make the adjusting payment (since the minutes of the meeting, and the meeting itself, are a public record, this is a good exercise in transparency).

Because of the risks involved in compensation-related matters, if at all possible, this type of challenge is a good one to work through with an attorney.[9]

 



[1] More on this approach, piloted in consultation with Sheryl Knab at WNYLRC (who was very patient as I unpacked all the nuances about attorney ethics and retainer agreements), is described in Hope Dunbar’s excellent article: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15332748.2018.1443572

[2] Sometimes, if the issue is sensitive enough (and there is no reason to involve them) the answer doesn't even go to the council.

[3] It could be relevant in the sense that the salaried employee was using the meeting time to hit a minimum amount of service for the work-week (say, 37.5 hours).  But that nuance doesn't quite fit the scenario.

[4] Note this says "approving," not "effecting."  A municipality can process the payroll and provide the employment benefits, and the library board of trustees remains the actual employer.

[5] Two great primers on how Civil Service Law impacts hiring library directors in New York are found at: http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/trustees/handbook/cs101.htm, and https://www.nyla.org/a-librarians-guide-to-civil-service-in-nys-2018/.

[6] The New York State Comptroller has understood the nuances of the library board-municipality relationship for decades.  See 1972 Op St Compt File #402.

[7] See the "Ask the Lawyer" on developing an MOU with your sponsoring municipality: https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/raqs/166

[8] I realize that might not be the case in some localities.  If that is the case for your library, you may want to skip this step, and head to the Comptroller.

[9] The case at this link, Beers v. Incorporation City of Floral Park, from 1999, shows why! https://casetext.com/case/beers-v-incorporated-village-of-floral-park

 

Tags: Board of Trustees, Public Libraries, Salary, Library Directors

Topic: Removal of Trustee From Board - 2/19/2021
Our board meetings are now 100% remote, and one trustee has failed to attend every session since t...
Posted: Friday, February 19, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Our board meetings are now 100% remote, and one trustee has failed to attend every session since the start of the pandemic.  How can our board address that, if we know the move to virtual meetings (unfamiliarity with Zoom, bad internet, etc.) is the reason for the absence?  Is removal an option?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Earlier this week I was having a conversation with Brian, one of my paralegals, about the challenges we—our office and our clients—are facing due to the pandemic.  The conversation ranged from the personal (Brian is a musician whose band hasn't been able to play; my father-in-law is in the hospital and we can't go see him), to the professional (how to handle a contract breached because people can’t gather to do the work).  We concluded, in a very non-scientific way, that everything—whether it used to be easy, or was only a little bit difficult—is now "at least 30% harder" than before.[1]

On the flip side, later that day, I spoke via Zoom with a friend about how the increased reliance on Zoom, FB Live, and other virtual fora has done wonders for democracy.  "People are going to meetings they could never get to before," said my friend. "People who would never have had time to get to City Hall, or would have faced actual physical barriers to getting in a building,[2] are now able to attend."  And I optimistically thought: Cool...one thing that isn't 30% harder.

But these current times are not kind to optimists, and this question shows that, for some, even the Zoom-ification of democracy might make life at least 30% harder. 

And with that harsh reality established, let's take a look at the legal considerations of this question.

I.  Meetings during COVID

As "Ask the Lawyer" has addressed a few times[3] since the onset of NY's response to the pandemic,[4] chartered libraries are obligated to conduct their board meetings in compliance with the "Open Meetings Law (the “OML”). When New York went into social-distancing mode, the requirements of that law were modified by Executive Order to allow people to attend remotely, or through a blend of in-person and remote solutions.[5]

The New York Committee on Open Government (the "COOG") addressed some of the practical considerations of these modifications in guidance issued on August 20, 2020.  In that opinion, the COOG stated that if a body subject to the OML resumed meeting in person while the executive orders allowing the modifications were effective, a remote attendance alternative must be provided.[6]  As of this writing, modification is good through February 26, 2021.

 

II.  Attendance as a Trustee During COVID

The Executive Orders and COOG guidance clearly require enabling attendance through remote measures.  What the executive orders and COOG[7] guidance are silent on is the scenario posed by the member: if a library board and community have transitioned to meeting 100% virtually, and one trustee, due to the technology, isn't able to attend, is the board able to address that under the law?[8]

I have found no guidance precisely on point, but below is my legal analysis, and what I hope will be helpful guidance.

 

III.  Analysis

Library trustee service is governed by the laws of New York and a library's enabling legislation, charter, bylaws, and policies (in that order).  Aside from customized provisions in a charter, bylaws or policy, the law has two means of addressing serial trustee absence:

Means #1: "Unexcused Absence"

Per Section 226(4) of the Education Law,[9] trustees who are absent for three consecutive meetings without a "satisfactory excuse" for missing the meeting are "deemed to have resigned."  That is why, when a trustee lets a board know that they are unable to attend a meeting (virtual or otherwise), and they don’t show up, they are noted on the minutes as "excused," since to do otherwise could put the trustee on a path of resignation-by-law.[10]

Many NY library bylaws have this language in them, but it is not required...since it's in the law.  But what isn't in the law is what a board can regard as a "satisfactory" excuse. Is the excuse of a trustee who can't attend remotely, due entirely to technology, "acceptable"?  Only a board can say.  In a very rural community, it might be.  In a highly wired urban area with free wi-fi, where a trustee could perhaps even borrow some library technology to attend the meeting, it might not. So long as the reason is not discriminatory,[11] and not contrary to the bylaws or being unfairly applied, a board has some discretion in what type of reason they are "satisfied" by.

But I can say this: if the absences aren't noted as "unexcused" on the board minutes, a board should not contemplate this as a basis for implied resignation, since the law is clear that this must be based on absence that is unexcused.

Means #2: "Neglect of Duty"

The other statutory basis for removal of a trustee is found in Section 226 (8) of the Education Law: "Removals and Suspensions,” which states that a board may:

“Remove or suspend from office by a vote of a majority of the entire board any trustee, officer or employee engaged under special contract, on examination and due proof of the truth of a written complaint by any trustee, of misconduct, incapacity or neglect of duty; provided, that at least one week’s previous notice of the proposed action shall have been given to the accused and to each trustee."

As you can see, this section (a provision often replicated in library bylaws) creates a more intricate process than Section 226(4): it requires a written complaint, advance notice, and a majority vote of trustees to confirm a removal. 

To use this provision to address nothing more than repeated absence due to technical issues is probably overkill, unless the board finds that the mounting excuses—while perhaps initially acceptable—are causing real harm to the library or the operations of the board.  Before resorting to this step, it is always good for a board president or other leader to have a conversation with a board member and ask if they would like to offer their resignation (for some, this request may come as a relief).[12]

That said, a "neglect of duty" removal doesn't have to be hostile.  It can simply state that a trustee has failed to attend X number of meetings, has been unable to fulfill their duty as a trustee, and that to ensure the board has the benefit of a fully participating body, the board must consider removal. Give proper notice of the “complaint,” make sure the trustee has a chance to be heard, and vote.

 

IV.  Guidance

So: Is removal an option?

Yes, removal is an option, but as can be seen, when considering such removal, a board should pay close attention to the documentation that it is basing its decision upon.

I am very glad the member who submitted this question is being so thoughtful about this.  It is clear from the law, the pandemic-related Executive Orders, and the COOG guidance, that it is the public policy of the State of New York to encourage attendance and access to library trustee meetings, even during difficult times. 

While trustees have a different set of rights and obligations than the general public, an effort to orchestrate meetings to be free of pandemic-created impediments to trustee participation is clearly within the spirit, if not the letter of the law. To that end, if a library is open and if it has a Safety Plan that could allow a capacity-limited physical component of a virtual board meeting (perhaps set up in the room where the trustees used to meet, if possible under the Safety Plan), it is worth considering allowing trustees to attend in that manner—even if the rest of the trustees appear virtually. 

But to be clear: that is not what the law requires.  And if everything feels at least 30% harder these days, every library needs every trustee to be giving 100%.  So, if steps need to be taken to ensure a board has its full capacity of engaged trustees, just double-check your bylaws and documentation, and do what's best for the library.

Thanks for a difficult but very important question.

 



[1] I have heard people used "B.P." as in, "Before Pandemic."  "Pre-COVID" and "pre-pandemic" are also used.  I have floated "ante-Corona," because it sounds so grandiose, but I can't get it to stick.

[2] My friend is an architect, so they tend to see the world in design terms.

[4] "P-Day?" 

[5] The latest extension of this modification is valid until February 26, 2021 per Executive Order 202.92.

[6] What the Executive Director wrote was: "In my opinion, if a public body can possibly anticipate that any persons who may wish to attend a meeting governed by the provisions of the Open Meetings Law cannot be safely physically accommodated in the proposed meeting location ... that public body is required to simulcast to the public, by either video or audio means, the proceedings of the meeting as they are occurring so that all members of the public who wish to “attend” may do so."

[7] Full disclosure: this acronym is a constant test of my maturity level.

[8] For purposes of this scenario, I am accepting the premise that not even attendance via LAN line is possible; something that is certainly feasible in our cord-cutting, cell-reliant society.  Further, I have never seen bylaws that require a trustee to own a computer, or even a phone (you usually just have to be 18 and live in the area of service!).

[9] "If any trustee shall fail to attend three consecutive meetings without excuse accepted as satisfactory by the trustees, he shall be deemed to have resigned, and the vacancy shall be filled."  Please pardon the implication by pronoun "he" that only a male trustee can be subject to this law; I don't write the law, I just research, construe, and quote it. 

[10] Short note for all you minute-takers out there: this is why noting those “excused” and “unexcused” absences is so important.

[11] For instance, if board meetings are always held on Friday night, and the board doesn't excuse the absence of someone who keeps the Jewish sabbath.

[12] I appreciate that if the trustee is truly inaccessible by computer/phone, this might be cumbersome.

Tags: Board of Trustees, COVID-19, Emergency Response

Topic: Library board authority over staff - 1/8/2021
The library is seeking information about a law stating that the library board has sole authority o...
Posted: Friday, January 8, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

The library is seeking information about a law stating that the library board has sole authority over public library staff benefits. The issue that needs to be addressed is a town board's attempt to eliminate a part-time employee's one week of paid leave per year that the library board granted [several years ago]. The town board's position is that since the other part-time town employees do not receive this paid leave, the library staff should not either. Research into the issue included a review of Education Law 226, but that only addresses hiring, firing, and salaries. Benefits such as paid time off, holiday pay, sick leave are not covered.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

I recently had a chance to check in with the New York State Comptroller's legal department[1] on this very topic.

The reason I had to check in is because the most recent on-point authority I could find on this subject was from 1981. 

The input I got from the legal department was re-assuring: no change in guidance in the almost four decades that followed.[2]

Now, that said, the attorney at the Comptroller's gave me the usual disclaimer that I often give in "Ask the Lawyer": It's just an opinion.  The law can change.  Check with your lawyer, since your charter, bylaws, and policies, or even a contract, could change how this applies to you."

But that said, below are the reassuring words of Comptroller Opinion #445, circa 1981.  Since they are a little heavy on the legalese and citation, I've put the important part in bold:

"As a general rule, the town library board of trustees, and not the town board, has the authority to appoint and dismiss library personnel (Education Law, §§ 226(7), 260; 30 Opns St Comp, 1974, p 98). The library board exercises direct control and supervision over library personnel and, for most purposes, including labor negotiations [**486] under the Taylor Law (Civil Service [*2] Law, §§ 200, et seq.), the library board is considered to be the employer of library personnel (County of Erie v. Board of Trustees, 62 Misc 2d 396, 308 NYS2d 515; Binghamton Public Library Unit v. City of Binghamton, 69 Misc 2d 1005, 331 NYS2d 515; Opns St Comp, 1972, No. 72-402, unreported; cf. Retirement and Social Security Law, § 30(c); Opns St Comp, 1980, No. 80-199, as yet unreported; Finkelstein v. Central School District, 34 AD2d 781, 311 NYS2d 243 affd 28 NY2d 705, 320 NYS2d 751). Compensation for library personnel is fixed by the library board and paid from the library fund (Education Law, §§ 226(7), 259(1)). It would then follow that, as between the town board and the library board, it is the library board which determines the vacation and sick leave benefits for library employees. It is our opinion that a library board of trustees has implied authority to provide for sick leaves and vacations for library employees (see Opn No. 80- 199, supra; 1961 Atty Gen [Inf Opns] 105; Education Law, §§ 226(7), 260). We note that expenditures for employer contributions to the New York State Employees' Retirement System for library employees are expenses [*3] incurred for the operation of the library and should be paid from library funds (Opns St Comp, 1975, No. 75-903, unreported; 16 Ed Dep't Rep, 1977, p 416). The same would hold true for employer contributions for social security and unemployment insurance for library employees." [emphasis added].

So, with regard to the member's specific situation, I of course have to say: " It's just an opinion.  The law can change.  Check with your lawyer, since your charter, bylaws, and policies, or even a contract, could change how this applies to you."  But if all of those things have been checked, and there is no provision changing the default, the Comptroller's words from 1981 still apply.

I hope this will help as your library works to retain that one week of paid leave!

Thanks for a great question.

 

Supplementary Answer

NOTE: For libraries that are running into this type of issue with their sponsoring municipalities, below, please find "some additional input" that I hope can be of help:

As many of you know, my law office has the privilege of working with libraries across New York.  It is work my team and I value highly, because it connects us with a vast "information army" of committed, creative librarians who are dedicated to public service.

This work also gives us an array of windows into what is happening "out there," especially when it comes to public libraries working with their districts and municipalities on issues like the one shown in this question.  And while each specific view from any particular window is confidential, it positions my team to distill a lot of anecdotal information,[3] and to share what we see in the aggregate.

Based on what we are seeing "in the aggregate" the type of issue brought forward by the member has always been an "issue," but with the budget pressures and political theater ushered in by the events of 2020, it appears positioned to become an "Issue" into 2021 and beyond. 

The emergence of this Issue isn't just a by-product of budget woes heightened by pandemic.  It is also the result of a rapidly evolving regime of employment law in New York, making the distinction between government and "private" employers more critical, with every passing day.  This distinction impacts things such as: comp time, overtime, minimum wage, insurance, liability, civil rights claims, labor law claims, and things that may seem mundane, but are actually quite important (such as: "Whose HR manual do we follow?").

If you take a quick scan of the "Ask the Lawyer" searchable index,[4] you'll see that numerous member questions arise from this "Public Library as Employer" divide. And while they relate to different aspects of the library-as-employer, they all touch on one very specific priority: public library board authority.  And it's apparent that this is something some sponsoring municipalities and districts have a challenge grasping.

So, in an effort to provide a short, succinct resource for libraries to direct their government entities to when they try to interfere with hiring, try to control employee benefits, or otherwise try to interrupt the autonomy of duly elected/appointed trustees in the governance of a chartered public library, I am posting this memo on my firm's website at https://www.stephaniecoleadams.com/adamsblog/2021/1/7/comments-on-public-library-board-autonomy, without the usual snarky asides and footnote commentary. 

Hopefully it can help avoid some of the needless argument and hostility that these misunderstandings can create.  If you find it helpful, please let us[5] know.

--Cole

 

Comments on Library Board Autonomy

Law and current legal authority firmly establish that public library boards are the sole authority regarding employee terms of employment, including hiring, compensation, benefits, evaluation, promotion, discipline, and termination. 

This autonomy is constrained only by a public library board's need to observe the New York Civil Service Law, the New York Education Law, numerous state and federal labor laws, various applicable regulations, and a library's own charter and bylaws. 

The law does allow a public library to use, in whole or in part, the payroll system, policies, and benefits systems of their sponsoring government entity, if such resources are offered to the library by that entity.  Further, the government entity, in making such an offer, may condition such use on the library's cooperation with certain reporting procedures or methods of documentation.  The choice to use such offered resources, however, is ultimately at the discretion of the library's board, who may instead decide to have the library implement its own system. 

And finally, the choice as to how to expend library funds with respect to employees (salary, benefits, paid time off) always rests solely with a public library's board.

The legal authority establishing these considerations is extensive, but a thorough summary is set forth in the links and content below.

https://www.osc.state.ny.us/legal-opinions/opinion-93-15, which states:

"The ultimate control of the use, disposition and expenditure of the library fund moneys is vested in the library board even when the municipal treasurer has custody (1991 Opns St Comp No. 91-57, p 158). Further, even if the treasurer of the sponsoring municipality is custodian of the library fund, the library board would have custody of private source moneys of the library (1988 Opns St Comp No. 88-76, p 145; 1980 Opns St Comp No. 80-340, p 101).

Public libraries are, for most purposes, fiscally autonomous from the sponsoring municipality (see Opn No. 91-57, supra; 1983 Opns St Comp No. 83-32, p 37; Buffalo Library v Erie County, 171 AD2d 369, 577 NYS2d 993 affd 80 NY2d 938, 591 NYS2d 131). In addition, public library officers and employees are often not considered to be officers and employees of the sponsoring municipality or school district (see, e.g., General Municipal Law, §800[5], conflicts of interest; Public Officers Law, §10, official oaths; Binghamton Public Library v City of Binghamton, 69 Misc 2d 1005, 331 NYS2d 515 and County of Erie v Board of Trustees, 62 Misc 2d 396, 308 NYS2d 515, collective bargaining negotiations). In view of the library's fiscal autonomy, it is our opinion that library trustees and the separate library treasurer are not town officers or employees for purposes of Town Law, §123 and, therefore, are not subject to the accounting and auditing provisions of that section.

We note, however, that General Municipal Law, §30(3) requires that an annual report of financial transactions, including those involving private source moneys (Opn No. 88-76, supra), be made by the treasurer of each public library. The report must be certified by the officer making the same and, unless an extension of time is granted, must be filed with the Office of the State Comptroller within 60 days after the close of the library's fiscal year (General Municipal Law, §30[5]). In addition, the Education Law contains certain requirements for public libraries to report to the State Education Department (see Education Law, §§215, 263). Finally, as noted in Opn No. 88-76, supra, the town board, in determining the amount to be raised by taxes for library purposes, may take into account a library's private source funds and, therefore, may request from the library information concerning such funds."

https://www.osc.state.ny.us/legal-opinions/opinion-91-57, which states:

"With respect to library moneys, however, we note that public libraries are, for most purposes, fiscally autonomous from the sponsoring municipality (see, e.g., 1983 Opns St Comp No. 83-32, p 38). Thus, the ultimate control of the use, disposition, and expenditure of those moneys is vested in the library board of trustees even if the municipal treasurer is the custodian of library moneys. (Education Law, §§226[6], 259[1]; 1987 Opns St Comp No. 87-84, p 125; see also Opn No. 87-49, supra; Opn No. 86-54, supra). In addition, it is the library board of trustees which may authorize the investment of library moneys even when the moneys are held in the custody of the municipal treasurer (Opn No. 86-54, supra). Therefore, since the library board controls the use and disposition of library fund moneys, it is our opinion that the library board must consent to any arrangement under which library fund moneys are to be comingled with moneys of the municipality."

https://www.osc.state.ny.us/legal-opinions/opinion-2001-12, regarding indemnification of library trustees, which states:

"PUBLIC OFFICERS LAW §18: There are two alternatives for conferring the benefits of section 18 of the Public Officers Law on employees of a public library: either (1) the board of trustees of the library may elect to confer the benefits of section 18 on library employees as a public library expense; or (2) the governing board of the sponsoring municipality or school district may confer section 18 benefits on library employees as a direct expense of the sponsor."

Comptroller Opinion #445, which states:

"As a general rule, the town library board of trustees, and not the town board, has the authority to appoint and dismiss library personnel (Education Law, §§ 226(7), 260; 30 Opns St Comp, 1974, p 98). The library board exercises direct control and supervision over library personnel and, for most purposes, including labor negotiations [**486] under the Taylor Law (Civil Service [*2] Law, §§ 200, et seq.), the library board is considered to be the employer of library personnel (County of Erie v. Board of Trustees, 62 Misc 2d 396, 308 NYS2d 515; Binghamton Public Library Unit v. City of Binghamton, 69 Misc 2d 1005, 331 NYS2d 515; Opns St Comp, 1972, No. 72-402, unreported; cf. Retirement and Social Security Law, § 30(c); Opns St Comp, 1980, No. 80-199, as yet unreported; Finkelstein v. Central School District, 34 AD2d 781, 311 NYS2d 243 affd 28 NY2d 705, 320 NYS2d 751). Compensation for library personnel is fixed by the library board and paid from the library fund (Education Law, §§ 226(7), 259(1)). It would then follow that, as between the town board and the library board, it is the library board which determines the vacation and sick leave benefits for library employees. It is our opinion that a library board of trustees has implied authority to provide for sick leaves and vacations for library employees (see Opn No. 80- 199, supra; 1961 Atty Gen [Inf Opns] 105; Education Law, §§ 226(7), 260). We note that expenditures for employer contributions to the New York State Employees' Retirement System for library employees are expenses [*3] incurred for the operation of the library and should be paid from library funds (Opns St Comp, 1975, No. 75-903, unreported; 16 Ed Dep't Rep, 1977, p 416). The same would hold true for employer contributions for social security and unemployment insurance for library employees."

 

I hope this information is of assistance.



[1] This is like a guitar player saying they recently got to jam with John Mayer.

[2] In fact, to bolster the 1981 opinion I found, they sent me an even older opinion.

[3] I appreciate that anecdotal information is not precise data analysis.  For that, I rely on the system, councils, LibDev, and NYLA.  I fall into those data rabbit holes regularly.

[4] I am very gratified to have been doing this long enough to warrant a searchable index.

[5] Write to adams@losopllc.com and jill@losapllc.com.

Tags: Board of Trustees, Employee Rights, Sick Leave, Benefits

Topic: Open Meetings Law and COVID - 12/14/2020
A member of my board of trustees would like for us to meet in person. There would be 9 people in t...
Posted: Monday, December 14, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

A member of my board of trustees would like for us to meet in person. There would be 9 people in the room. They wanted to know if allowing the meeting to be simultaneously on Zoom would satisfy the requirements of open meetings law even though only one member of the public would be able to be physically present in order to stay under the 10-member cap for small gatherings.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Since the onset of the pandemic, we have had two questions about the impact of Executive Orders on the Open Meetings Law.

The first question, back in March 2020 (remember March 2020?  Ugh.), led to this advice:

... the method you select for sharing the meeting in real time (livestreaming, a broadcast) should be accessible to the general public.

Of course, by Fall 2020, we all became experts at these modified proceedings, and were asking refined questions like:

How long does a library (public or association) or a cooperative public library system have to keep the recording of board or committee meetings?

(Answer: until transcribed.)

This brings us to December, 2020.

On December 2, 2020, the Governor issued Executive Order 202.79,[1] continuing the suspension and temporary modification of the Open Meetings Law through January 1, 2021.[2]  So here we are, still meeting under modified circumstances.[3]

Which brings us to the member's question:

[Does] allowing the meeting to be simultaneously on Zoom ... satisfy the requirements of open meetings law even though only one member of the public would be able to be physically present in order to stay under the 10-member cap for small gatherings[?]

Answer: Yes.

Here is why I can answer this question with one-word confidence.

Back in August, 2020 (remember August, 2020?  Slightly less "ugh.") the Executive Director of the State Committee on Open Government, realizing that different areas have different COVID numbers and are facing different Open Meetings Law compliance challenges, wrote in an Advisory Opinion:[4]

...if a public body is convening an essential meeting, the body must ensure that it adheres to social distancing, masking, and any other administration requirements, and if there is any question about whether it is able to maintain a safe space in which to hold an essential open meeting, it must provide a contemporaneous video or audio broadcast such that members of the public who cannot safely attend in person “ha[ve] the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed.”

Further, the Advisory Opinion went on to emphasize that room capacity and safety concerns should not impede public access to an OML-accessible meeting. "[A] public body may not artificially limit attendance at its meetings – to do so would not be consistent with the requirements of the Open Meetings Law."

The solution posed in the question submitted by the member adequately addresses this concern.   By enabling observation and attendance via Zoom, the proceeding will be virtually accessible even though it has been physically convened.  The key is ensuring access at a time of modified operations.

And what do we do when Executive Order 202.72 expires?

We'll see in the New Year!

Thanks for a thoughtful question, I wish you a productive and safe meeting.



[1] https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-20279-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency.

[2] If you'd like to follow the daisy-chain of executive orders on this, here goes: Executive Order 202.1 first suspended/modified the Open Meetings Law Requirements, and then Executive Orders 202.14, 202.28. 202.38, 202,48, 202.55, 202.60, 202.67, and now, 202.72, kept that suspension/modification going.

[3] There are several legal challenges under way, based on the ability of the Governor to continue the state of emergency and resulting Executive Orders.  I am not commenting on that.

[4] Found at https://www.dos.ny.gov/press/2020/Essential%20Meeting%20OML%20AO.pdf

Tags: Board of Trustees, COVID-19, Emergency Response, Executive Order, Open Meetings Law

Topic: Transcribing records under Open Meetings Law - 11/16/2020
Under the executive order, the modifications to Open Meetings Law meant we (I'm...
Posted: Monday, November 16, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Under the executive order, the modifications to Open Meetings Law meant we (I'm asking for several libraries in our system) record our Board meetings.

How long does a library (public or association) or a cooperative public library system have to keep the recording of board or committee meetings ?  Looking at http://www.archives.nysed.gov/records/local-government-records-schedule-browse?combine=meeting+recording, it states:
 "Four months after the transcription or minutes have been created"

Transcribing could be challenging, particularly for smaller libraries, so we were relieved to read that once minutes were created, we might not have to transcribe (hopefully we are reading that correctly).

However - our question is about the placement of the word "or".  Is it:

Option 1: Once transcribed, keep for four months. Once minutes are created and accepted (which might be less than four months - in our case, it would be at the next board meeting), you can delete recording.
Option 2: Whether transcribed or minutes created, keep the recordings for four months. 

Under option 2, it seems like there is a higher standard for meetings.  Pre COVID, our board meetings would occur, open to the public but usually no public in attendance, and the only "evidence" of the meeting would be the minutes.  Now, we are required to keep the recording for at least four months - which isn't a huge hardship but curious about the rationale behind that.

Thank you!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Before attempting to answer this one, my team and I looked to see if anyone else "out there" has tackled this question.

We scoured the usual places (NYS Empire Development's COVID site, Committee on Open Government, NY Archives, NYLA, etc.), but my staff and I didn't find anything right on point. That said, the COVID landscape changes fast, so please let us know if you find anything, and we'll post an update to this answer.

And with that shameless disclaim/plea on the record, here is my answer:

As I read it, the currently-governing Executive Order[1] requires an entity subject to the Open Meetings Law to keep the recordings until they have been transcribed—not just until the minutes have been created.

Here is my reasoning: Executive Order 202.1[2] changed the Open Meetings Law as follows:

...to the extent necessary to permit any public body to meet and take such actions authorized by the law without permitting in public in-person access to meetings and authorizing such meetings to be held remotely by conference call or similar service, provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed. [emphasis added]

Although the normal application of the LGS-1 would allow for the recording to be erased upon creation of the minutes—just as the member points out—the Executive Order is an overlay that super-cedes (or at least, exceeds) normal record-keeping requirements.

I realize this means a library that can't afford to transcribe the recording any time soon will have to keep the audio around.  It's possible that the state, after considering the fiscal reality of the conditions the "later transcribed" condition imposes, may eventually tinker with the requirement, perhaps simply insisting the audio be retained for a certain time after the minutes are generated.[3]

I am leaning on the side of retention, and not taking the easy way out by swapping it out for creating minutes, because access to the process, in all its glory, is the default purpose of the law.  Further, Committee on Open Government Advisory Opinion has stated that while masks and social distancing remain requirements, entities subject to the Open Meetings Law must be making the proceedings contemporaneously available via audio or video[4].  So with all that, I have to err on the side of retention, access, and transparency.

Fortunately, digital sound file storage is not too costly these days.[5]

Thank you for a thoughtful question.



[2] Which as of this writing, is extended through December 3, 2020, by Executive Order #72, found on 11/17/20 at https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-20272-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency.

[3] This sounds like a nice ask to go out from a library advocacy organization.   "Please, Mr. Governor, can you waive the estimated $[AMOUNT] in estimated transcription fees incurred the same year when many localities are taking COVID-induced hits to their budgets?"  I'd sign that letter in a heartbeat.

[5] Finding the budget to properly compensate qualified people to manage that storage is another question!

Tags: Board of Trustees, COVID-19, Emergency Response, Executive Order, Open Meetings Law, Retention, Streaming

Topic: Board of Trustees Approval for Library Reopening Plans - 8/3/2020
Should a board of trustees vote on their institution’s COVID-19 Safety Plan?  Or should...
Posted: Monday, August 3, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Should a board of trustees vote on their institution’s COVID-19 Safety Plan?  Or should the adoption of the Plan be left entirely to the institution’s director or executive director?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Who is “in charge” of a library’s safety plan--the trustees, or the director?

It’s tricky, but if you bear with me, you will get an answer.

When it comes to who is “in charge” at an organization, boards must respect the authority of those they employ to lead (the director).  At the same time, the organization, including the director, must be guided by the work of those fiduciaries ultimately responsible for it (the trustees).

This dynamic can play out in many ways, but in a healthy board-director dynamic, the board lives up to its responsibility as a fiduciary by honoring the authority of the director. So to assess a question like this, I start with the board’s responsibility…which is also the responsibility of the library.

What is the responsibility of a library open during COVID-19?  Here’s the lay of the land, straight from the “NY Forward Lookup Tool”:

Image is a screenshot from the NY Forward tool, with arrows pointing out the text for applicable guidelines. This text is linked below the image.

The “applicable guidelines”[1] I have so carefully underlined (as found July 6, 2020, at https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/RetailMasterGuidance.pdf)  state, in relevant part:

The Responsible Parties – as defined below – are accountable for adhering to all local, state and federal requirements relative to retail business activities. …

The proprietor/operator… or another party as may be designated by the proprietor/operator (in either case, "the Responsible Parties"), shall be responsible for meeting these standards.”

As part of the “applicable guidelines”, the “Responsible Parties” must certify having read and understood the obligation of their institution to “operate in accordance with such guidance,” as shown here[2]:

Image is a screenshot with an arrow pointing to the italicized text mentioning the Responsible Parties. This text can be read on the NY Forward Applicable Guidelines page.

None of this expressly requires that the person signing the certification, or the developer of a Safety Plan, is any particular person or entity.  Rather, the “owner or agent” of the library (who could be an officer of the board with signing authority from the bylaws, the director, another employee, or even an attorney operating on instructions from the library/client) signs the certification, and at some point, they adopt a Safety Plan.  That’s it.

But while there is no prescribed process for the Safety Plan, a look at some of the things the Plan must address is instructive.  For instance, the above-linked guidance states:

Signage should be used to remind employees and customers to:

  • Cover their nose and mouth with a face covering when six feet of social distance cannot be maintained.
  • Properly store and, when necessary, discard PPE.
  • Adhere to physical distancing instructions.
  • Report symptoms of or exposure to COVID-19, and how they should do so.
  • Follow hand hygiene and cleaning and disinfection guidelines.
  • Follow appropriate respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette.

As I have written about elsewhere[3], the requirements listed above, among other things, become temporary modifications to a library’s Code of Conduct.  In order to enforce social distancing and use of PPE in the library as required by the State, a library must ultimately tie a patron’s failure to do so to its Code and process for restricting access to patrons.[4]  For that reason alone (and there are many, many others, including a Plan’s impact on conditions for employees, procurement practices, security procedures, budget, etc.), the board should be the entity that adopts the Plan.

This is not to say that a director with adequate experience to draft a library’s Safety Plan cannot be the primary author of the Plan.  In fact, the director (and other employees with high familiarity with certain operations) is likely the person best situated to envision adjusted floorplans, shift schedules, workflows, signage posting, employee temperature monitoring, and employee training methods (to name just a few), all of which must be addressed in the Safety Plan. 

But because of the many high-stakes areas a Safety Plan impacts, a library’s board should be the entity accountable for adopting it and ensuring it is updated at regular intervals.  On the flip side, after the Plan is adopted, the director will be the authority responsible for seeing that the Plan is followed.

The board has this accountability for passing the Plan because a COVID-19 Safety Plan is not just a tool for safety, but also a mechanism of legal compliance and risk management.  When you stop and think about it, most policies or plans that relate to safety, legal compliance, and risk management—things like workers’ compensation insurance policies, sexual harassment and civil rights policies, and fiscal controls policies—are all things that a board is ultimately accountable for.  While the director may have the authority to ensure compliance with them, they are adopted by a board. And that is as it should be.

Of course, it can be a challenge for a small board to meet as often as needed to keep a COVID-19 Safety Plan evolving in light of new research, evolving library operations, and on-the-ground improvements.[5]  For such situations, it is good to consider an approach like the one set out in the below template resolution:

BE IT RESOLVED that the board hereby adopts the Safety Plan considered at this meeting of DATE; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Plan be posted in the Library, as required by the Plan, within 24 hours of the passage of this Resolution; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that to ensure the Safety Plan is updated in a manner that is conducive to optimal operations of the Library, the Director, [in consultation with INSERT[6]] is authorized to update the Safety Plan as needed, consistent with CDC and OSHA guidelines, and shall present the current updated version then in effect at each subsequent meeting of the board, to be reviewed and ratified by same.

 

So, what is the answer to the member’s questions? 

There is no “right” answer to this, but lots of factors point to the board serving as a library’s COVID-19 Safety Plan’s ultimate authority.  That said, in passing such a plan, a board should draw from the experience, and support the executive authority, of the library’s director. 

Like all healthy board-director relationships, this approach requires listening, learning, a good sense of roles and boundaries, and mutual respect.  A tall order in frantic times, but one that good planning and careful consideration[7] can almost always bring about.

Thank you for an important question.

 



[1] You will no doubt be shocked to learn that my law school did not have a “graphic design” elective for marking up NY State pandemic policy documents.

[2] I imagine many directors and board members have gone through this triad of assurance many times, and are sick of it.

[4] While Executive Order 206.39 granted any business the right to refuse a person access if they are not wearing a mask (if they can medically tolerate one), I am not comfortable with any lingering consequences for refusal to wear a mask or otherwise abide by the safety plan unless they are tied to the due process in a Code of Conduct.

[5] Larger libraries will have already had a business continuity, disaster recovery, and perhaps even an all-hazards response plan in place.  The approach outlined in this answer is drafted with smaller libraries, who typically don’t have such deep resources, in mind.

[6] The option in brackets here is to allow revisions in consultation with some back-up for the director: a committee of the board, or the chair of the board, or an independent consultant as authorized by the board, or the local Health Department. 

[7] And frequent re-reads of the “Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State,” found at http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/trustees/handbook/.

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Reopening policies, Board of Trustees

Topic: Trustees and First Amendment - 7/27/2020
Our municipal library recently revised its by-laws, and the revisions were approved by four of our...
Posted: Tuesday, July 28, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Our municipal library recently revised its by-laws, and the revisions were approved by four of our five elected trustees. The fifth trustee abstained, and a month later sent the other board members an email saying he thought some of the language was in violation of First Amendment rights. He said three lawyers he talked with concurred.

The language in question were sentences that were copied verbatim from United For Libraries of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics. The same language was found in the New York State Library Trustees Manual, published by the New York Board of Regents.

Specifically, this is the language in the revised by-laws the trustee objected to:

"Trustees must distinguish clearly in their actions and statements between their personal philosophies and attitudes of those of the library, acknowledging and supporting the formal position of the Board even if they disagree."

"When any trustee acts in a manner that is not in the best interests of the library or in a cooperative nature of the Board, the Board Chair shall discuss the issue with the trustee in a direct and constructive manner. Specifically, if a trustee is negligent in attending meetings to an extent that affects the operation of the Board, if a trustee is actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions, if a trustee acts or speaks on behalf of the Board on any matter without prior approval of the Board, or if a trustee or his/her family benefits personally from any library matters, that trustee may be asked to resign from the Board by majority vote of the trustees. The trustee will be asked to resign from the Board by letter from the Board Chair, and the trustee will be asked to send a letter of resignation to the Board Chair."

The trustee stated, "A public library, with publicly elected trustees cannot in any manner restrict the opinions or comments of any board member, whether in executive session or public meeting, nor can they be compelled to support the decisions of the majority. Such action is a direct infringement on the First Amendment to the Constitution."

QUESTION: Do the passages in quotes[1] from United for Libraries of the library's new by-laws infringe on First Amendment rights?



[1] NOTE:  The quoted language in the question does not exactly track the language in the 2018 NY Trustee Handbook, nor the United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement.  This reply addresses the language as quoted in the question and does not address the Handbook nor the United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

OPENING NOTE: Before I answer this question, I must stress: while some of it is identical, the quoted language in the question does not exactly track the language in the “2018 Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State,” nor the “United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement.”  This reply addresses the language as quoted in the question and does not address the precise language of the Handbook or the Ethics Statement.

Here are the words of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I have been thinking a lot about these words, lately.  Business restrictions, social distancing, mask-wearing, protesting…2020 has evoked them, again and again.[1]

For this question, these strong, simple words are contrasted against the laws, regulations, and documents setting the terms of service of a public library board member. 

Let’s review those terms of service:

  • In the State of New York, public and private libraries are chartered by the NY State Education Department, as authorized by Education Law Section 255.
  • Whatever “type”[2] a Regents-chartered library is, it is always considered an “education corporation,”[3] to be governed, in part, by the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law.[4]
  • Although they are “education corporations,” public libraries bear some hallmarks of government entities: trustees must take oaths of office, most employees are part of the Civil Service, and there are significant, government-aligned requirements for procurement, audit, and accounting.
  • And of course, public libraries are subject to the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law, the laws of their host municipalities, and the requirements of their own charters, bylaws, and policies.

This elaborate grid of law, regulation, and governance creates not only a public library--it creates the conditions for service by the public library trustee. 

Overarching all of this is the First Amendment, with its shifting assurances of unfettered freedom of speech and association. These shifting assurances include (but are not limited to): the right to say something (“free speech”), the right to not say something (no “compelled speech”), the freedom to attend meetings and gatherings (“association”), and the right to protest and advocate for your point of view (to “peaceably petition the government for redress of grievances”).

I say “shifting assurances,” because as is widely known, the tests for violations of the First Amendment depend on the context of the speech.[5]  Depending on the government interest to be advanced, or the nature of the speech impacted, the Supreme Court has created various tests to assess the Constitutionality of governmental actions impacting expression.[6]  One of those “contexts” is the voluntary acceptance of public library trustee service, which means agreeing to serve in alignment with certain laws. 

Here are just a few examples of how, even though every person on a public library board has First Amendment rights, speech and association of a trustee may be “limited” by law:

  • Trustees must take an Oath of Office,[7] which is arguably “compelled speech” required by the Education Law and the Public Officers Law;
  • Trustees must agree to follow the library’s “Conflict of Interest” policy, which is arguably “compelled speech” required by both the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law and the mandated Oath of Office;
  • Trustees must meet at least quarterly and if individual members do not attend, they may be removed, which is arguably “compelled association” required by the Education Law;
  • Trustees must not divulge communications designated by statute as confidential (whether or not they were discussed at executive session)[8] which is arguably “restricted speech” but is a condition confirmed in a number of judicial and Education Commissioner decisions;
  • Board members must abide by a library board’s code of ethics or risk being removed for misconduct.

Each of these examples is an instance where library trustees must curb or engage in behavior due to their special status as a public library trustee.  Each is a well-established condition, limiting or prescribing actions and expression, voluntarily undertaken as part of a valuable public service.

So, it is clear that library trustees must accept some conditions impacting their First Amendment rights, as a condition of board service.  But what about the language cited by the member’s question?

Most of the language in the question, as presented, does not lend itself to any concerns about the First Amendment; in fact, most of it does just the opposite.  By requiring a board member who is expressing a personal opinion to clarify that they do not speak for the full board or the institution, the language allows a trustee to express their personal position without jeopardizing their duty as a fiduciary who must act solely in the best interests of the institution.  Further, citing “the best interests of the library” and “the cooperative nature of the Board” emphasizes how a board must collaborate in good faith to achieve board decisions based solely in the trustees’ role as fiduciaries, which is consistent with both the Not-for-Profit Corporation law, and the cases construing duties of boards. 

In short, most of the language allows a trustee to perform their duties while exercising their First Amendment rights.

All that said, I have First Amendment concerns about the following phrases:

“…supporting the formal position of the Board even if they disagree.”

“…if a trustee is actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions …”

 

What are my concerns with these phrases?

I have concerns because the meaning of these phrases, while evocative of a trustee’s “duty of loyalty”[9] to the library they serve, is ambiguous.   Ambiguity—by which I mean uncertainty about what exactly is being required--does not work well when free speech is implicated; and the uncertainty caused by a term being vague or overbroad creates risk. 

Here is how that risk plays out:

The following are some examples [10] of behavior that could be characterized as a trustee “actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions…” that would violate the trustee’s duty of loyalty, and thus if punished with removal or censure, would NOT create First Amendment concerns:

  • A trustee knows it is in the best interest of the library to fix the roof in 2020, but publicly advocates waiting until a roofer they personally like (a neighbor or a drinking buddy) is free to perform the work in 2021;
  • A trustee knows that Candidate #1 has the best qualifications for the job, and therefore hiring Candidate #1 is in the best interest of the library, but thinks Candidate #2 will make their friends happier, so publicly endorses and votes for #2;
  • After appropriate due diligence and discussion with legal counsel during executive session, the board votes to buy the lot next door and to roll out news of the decision in a particular way.  A trustee, by virtue of information learned during the process, knows that the decision complies with all applicable laws and regulations, but still organizes a petition asserting the purchase is “illegal.”

Any of these, if proved, could be grounds for removing a trustee for “misconduct” and removal with no First Amendment defense to fight the removal. 

HOWEVER, as I said, the ambiguity of the quoted phrases, and some of their possible implications, concerns me.  To flip my examples around, here are some examples of behavior that could be characterized as a “trustee is actively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions…” that would NOT violate the duty of loyalty, and if punished with removal or censure, COULD create concerns under the First Amendment:

  • A trustee knows it is in the best interest of the library to fix the roof in 2020, but the only roofer to bid on the contract as authorized by the board has an established track record of defective work which is not being considered in the procurement process. In the days before the scheduled vote on the contract, the trustee publicly—and clearly only speaking for themselves—advocates a new procurement process and project timing that will attract roofers with a better record of performance;
  • A trustee sees that the new director, while excellent in many ways, does not have experience organizing a move to a new building, so despite a previous decision by the board to not hire a consultant to assist with the move, re-introduces a resolution to hire a consultant, and publicly (but respectfully) shares their reasons for the procurement;
  • A trustee, by virtue of information learned at executive session, has a genuine concern that a planned land purchase will not comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and reaches out to a private attorney to confidentially share their concerns.  Once those concerns are confirmed, the trustee shares the concerns in another executive session.  The board ignores the concerns, so the trustee—taking care to state that they are speaking personally and not for the board--THEN (without divulging attorney-client privileged information from the sessions) writes to the state Comptroller and the Attorney General for guidance, and writes a letter to the town paper stating simply that they hope to have time to gather further information.

If this seems complicated: it is.[11]  This is why there is a 132-page Handbook for library trustees, why there is currently a state-wide discussion about mandated training for library trustees, and why libraries have lawyers. 

Serving as a public library trustee is truly a role like no other.  To support the people in that role, if I were to word-smith the phrasing I have expressed concerns with, it would read (shown here with tracked changes):

"Trustees must distinguish clearly in their actions and statements between their personal philosophies and attitudes of those of the library, acknowledging and supporting as legitimate the formal actions position of the Board even if they disagree."

"When any trustee acts in a manner that is not in the best interests of the library or is inconsistent with thein a cooperative nature of the Board, the Board Chair shall discuss the issue with the trustee in a direct and constructive manner. Specifically, if a trustee is negligent in attending meetings to an extent that affects the operation of the Board, if a trustee is  engaging in misconduct or neglect of dutyactively working against the interest of the library or Board decisions, if a trustee acts or speaks on behalf of the Board on any matter without prior approval of the Board, or if a trustee or his/her family benefits personally from any library matters, that trustee may be asked to resign from the Board by majority vote of the trustees. The trustee will be asked to resign from the Board by letter from the Board Chair, and the trustee will be asked to send a letter of resignation to the Board Chair."


I suggest adding the words “misconduct” and “neglect of duty” because they come straight from Education Law 226(8), and as such, they are less prone to mis-interpretation.  On the flip side, I suggest removing the phrase, “actively working against,” because that phrase has no basis in law, regulation, or case law;[12] therefore, it risks mis-interpretation.  Since First Amendment decisions often turn on a phrase’s precise meaning (through definition or usage), these are more reliable choices.

To put this plainly: I am concerned that the language, as presented by the member’s question, creates the possibility of a public library chair thinking it is appropriate to tell a public library trustee: “The majority of the board voted to fix the roof this year, it’s a done deal, and now you have to keep quiet about it, or be removed from the board.”  This might not only violate the First Amendment, but could result in a course of action where the trustees are not acting in the best interests of the library.  That is a result to avoid.

At the same time, boards MUST feel empowered to remove members who are disruptive, who refuse to engage in the processes of deliberation and voting, who are disrespectful if they don’t get their own way, who improperly disclose confidential information, who have inappropriate relations with patrons or staff, or who violate board policy...so language emphasizing trustees’ responsibilities should be retained, and should be revisited often. 

Clarity about trustee rights and obligations, board training, and procedures creating a high-functioning board are always in the best interests of a library.

Thank you for a great question.  I hope this answer is helpful. 

CLOSING NOTE: At this closing section of the answer, I would like to re-iterate what was established in the first footnote: Although similar, the quoted language in the question does not exactly track the language in the “2018 Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State” nor the “United for Libraries Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement”.  This reply addresses the language as quoted in the question and does not address the precise language in the Handbook nor the Ethics Statement.



[1] And the year is only half over.

[2] Indian, free association, special district, school district, municipal.

[3] This governance is established through a daisy chain of Education Law sections: 255, 260, 226, and 216-a.

[4] The Education Law carves out several areas where the NFP law does not apply, including provisions related to trustee removal.

[7] By taking the Oath, a public library trustee has made the sworn commitment to “support the constitution of the United States, and the constitution of the State of New York, and … faithfully discharge the duties of the office of” serving on the board. 

[8] This is a tricky one.  A good “Committee on Open Government” opinion discussing the nuances of this can be found at https://docs.dos.ny.gov/coog/otext/o4258.htm.  Another illustration of the shifting conditions of board service is the discussion in a 2017 NY Commissioner of Education’s decision to not overturn the removal of a school board member who admittedly shared confidential information from an executive session, found here: http://www.counsel.nysed.gov/Decisions/volume57/d17147.

[9] It is worth noting that the phrase “duty of loyalty” does not appear in the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, but is a creature of case law.

[10] All of these examples were picked to not otherwise be covered by required policies such as Sexual Harassment, Conflict of Interest, Whistleblower, confidentiality of topics duly discussed during Executive Session.

[11] These distinctions may be counter-intuitive to some people used to the operations of not-for-profit boards, which come with a high expectation of service with confidentiality.  A key distinction between library board work and the work of other entities governed by the Not-for-Profit corporation law is that library board work, by law, takes place before the scrutiny of the public.  So, while the “duty of loyalty” held by a typical not-for-profit board member would include not divulging board discussions and board votes, for chartered libraries, this activity takes place with an expectation of disclosure.

[12] To make this assertion, I checked for the phrase “actively working against” in all laws and regulations of New York, and the decisions of the NYS Commissioner of education.  The phrase has no application in any of those contexts, and appears in only six judicial decisions in New York (state and federal), none of which deal with libraries or not-for-profit board service.

Tags: Public Libraries, Board of Trustees, COVID-19, Education Law Section 225, First Amendment, Public Officers Law

Topic: Code of Ethics Conflict of Interest - 11/6/2019
What, if any, are the ramifications if a school district public library board of trustee member re...
Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

What, if any, are the ramifications if a school district public library board of trustee member refuses to sign the code of ethics and/or the conflict of interest/whistleblower policy?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

I am sure there is a very interesting set of facts, personal convictions, and conversations behind the stark facts presented in this question (there always is).  But we’ll address just the stark facts.

Because a library’s Code of Ethics, Conflict of Interest Policy, and Whistleblower Policy[1] are rooted in different areas of the law, a refusal to sign these documents creates an array of ramifications. We’ll explore each type in turn.

But first, it’s important to establish certain base factors.

Base Factors

In New York, most libraries (unless they are part of a larger institutions like a college or museum) are not-for-profit corporations chartered by the New York Education Department’s Board of Regents.[2]  This means that, just like other not-for-profit corporations registered with the New York Department of State, libraries are subject to the Not-for-Profit Corporations Law (the “NFPCL”).[3]  This includes school district public libraries.

Without getting too technical, this means that all libraries in New York are governed in accordance with not only their charters and bylaws, but the applicable parts of the Education Law and the NFPCL, too.[4]

This governance structure impacts questions related to conflicts of interest, whistleblowing, and codes of ethics. With the basic features established, let’s look at the different type of policy in the member question.

 

Conflict of Interest Policy

Here is what the law says about a refusal to participate in the “Conflict of Interest” policy, as governed by the NFPCL:

The conflict of interest policy shall require that prior to the initial election of any director[5], and annually thereafter, such director shall complete, sign and submit to the secretary of the corporation or a designated compliance officer a written statement identifying, to the best of the director’s knowledge, any entity of which such director is an officer, director, trustee, member, owner (either as a sole proprietor or a partner), or employee and with which the corporation has a relationship, and any transaction in which the corporation is a participant and in which the director might have a conflicting interest.[6]

So, to give a stark answer to the member’s question, per the law, no person should actually be elected to serve as a trustee until the nominee’s Conflict of Interest statement (the “COI”) is completed and submitted.  In other words, if the COI is not turned in, that person should never initially be elected as a trustee (we’ll pick that back up in a few paragraphs when we discuss the election criteria for school district public library trustees).

 

Whistleblower Policy

A requirement to “sign” the Whistleblower Policy is a slightly different matter.  Unlike the law related to conflicts of interest, the law requiring any not-for-profit with over 20 employees (or revenue in excess of one million dollars) to have a Whistleblower Policy[7] does not come with a requirement for trustees to sign any document. 

Of course, a refusal to abide by the Whistleblower Policy (for instance, a trustee failing to keep a report confidential), could result in a violation of the law, and the libraries’ bylaws, as well.

 

Code of Ethics

Public school boards must have Codes of Ethics,[8] but libraries—even school district public libraries—do not. There is no requirement in the NFPCL, nor the Education Law, nor any applicable regulations, that a public library have such a code.

That said, to clearly express and enforce a library’s values, a Code of Ethics is often built into a library’s bylaws or adopted as a stand-alone policy of a library’s board.[9]   The bylaws, or policy itself, could also require that it be signed.  Once it is a requirement of the bylaws or policy, it does not have the force of law, but it can be enforced by the board.

 

Refusal to Sign

Which brings us to: whether it a requirement of law or policy, the refusal to sign of a board member must be addressed under the library’s charter, bylaws, and the NFPCPL. 

Under NFPCL §706, a board is empowered to remove a board member per the procedures in its bylaws.  Therefore, if a board determines that failure to sign the Code of Ethics or Whistleblower Policy is unacceptable, or that a failure to sign a Code of Ethics makes the library non-compliant with the law, then that board member can be removed, provided the remaining trustees are careful to follow the bylaw’s procedures for doing so. 

This can be a divisive issue, since I imagine someone could present a debatable reason for not signing a Code or other policy,[10] but since a Code of Ethics or mission statement is something every board member must support as part of their service to the library, the root cause of the refusal might be just as serious as the refusal, and in any event, must be resolved. And that is, except for one wrinkle, the lay of the land.

 

School District Public Library

At school district public libraries, board members are elected per the requirements of Education Law §260. 

§260, and by reference, §2018 of the Education Law, include very precise conditions for the nomination and election of a school district public library board member—none of which is a pre-vote signature on a COI, or a signed acceptance of a Whistleblower Policy or Code of Ethics.

Of course, per Public Officers Law §10, all school district public library trustees must take and file an oath of office “before he[11] shall be entitled to enter upon the discharge of any of his official duties.” This means, somewhere in the “pre-term” area after the election but before the newly elected trustee starts working, there is a zone where they can, based on a refusal to take the oath of office, not be qualified to start the term.[12]

The consequences of a refusal to sign a COI are a little less well-defined, but it is clear that if a board tolerates a refusal, the organization is not in compliance with the NFPCL.  The refusal to sign a Whistleblower Policy is not controlled by law, but the failure to actually follow it is.  And the failure of a board member to sign a Code of Ethics is a matter to be decided by the rest of the governing board.

 

What Happens Next?

The refusal to sign and participate in critical board policy cannot simply be ignored.  It has to be addressed, and the rest of the board has to follow the rules as they address it.

Barring any obvious provision in the bylaws or wording in a particular policy, what does the board use as a playbook for dealing with this type of challenge?  Upon confirming the factors leading to the refusal, a board’s executive committee,[13] consulting with the library’s lawyer and working from copies of the charter and bylaws, must consider the facts, could develop a solution.  The solution could be a revision of a policy to address a particular concern, or, in the case of an incomplete COI, removal of the member.  In no event should this be done without the input of an attorney, since the stakes are high, and feelings may be strong.

Thank you for an important question.



[1] In their quest to impose order on the universe, lawyers often use capitalization to express when a “thing” is a “Thing.”  For purposes of this answer, the various policies the member references are each Things, and so while certain style guides may disapprove, the capitals are there to stay!

[2] The way corporations are created in New York is a type of legal conjuring.  For more information on this particular type of conjuring, check out the New York State Education Department’s Division of Library Development Guide at http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/charter/index.html, and Education Law §255.

[3] This application of the NFPCL is set forth in NY Education Law §216-a, which is a fun read on a rainy day. 

[4] Intricate arrangements like this are why people like me have jobs!

[5] In the law, “director,” “board member” or “trustee member” all refer to elected members of the board of trustees.

[6] This is from NFPCL §715-a (c).  This language, or something substantially similar, should be in every library’s Conflict of Interest Policy.

[7] NFPCL §715-b.

[8] §806 Section 1(a) of NY’s General Municipal Law.

[9] Boards of museums and other cultural agencies chartered by the Regents are required to have a code of ethics; see 8 NYCRR § 3.30.

[10] I cannot imagine a good reason for not signing a COI, unless the policy was badly worded, there is confusion about the policy, or the director really does believe they should be allowed to vote for their wife’s company to install the new library floor.

[11] It’s 2019.  We really need to work on the pronouns in our legislation.

[12] As but one example of this, see 2001 Op Comm Ed No. 14,710

[13] Or the trusteeship committee, or the board, working as a committee of the whole…whatever group will ensure thorough assessment and the preparation for, if needed, a removal vote.

Tags: Ethics, School Libraries, Board of Trustees

Topic: Sexual Harassment Training - 9/26/2018
Beginning on October 9, employers in NYS are required to make interactive training which meets sta...
Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2018 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Beginning on October 9, employers in NYS are required to make interactive training which meets state outlined minimum standards to their employees to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. As a cooperative public library system which serves a membership of public libraries including those which employ 1-3 staff members, we would like to support our members by providing the training centrally. We have no governing or financial authority over these independent libraries. Their employees are not our employees.

Can we provide training centrally for the employees of member libraries, as long as the training itself meets the minimum training standards?

Do different levels of employees need to be provided with different training sessions, for instance do library staff persons need to be provided a training space free of the library director?

Do trustees serving on library (or any non-profit) board need to participate in this training and if so, do they need their own session?

It is my understanding that training can only be shared if all the institutions have agreed to the state version of the policy AND been given the state created training module. Is that true?

Thank you!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

The member is right: New York State has taken the huge step of requiring ALL employers—whether  they employ one, or one thousand—to train their people to recognize and report sexual harassment and illegal retaliation.

But this training requirement does not stand alone.  Also as part of the amped-up law:

  • All employers must have a sexual harassment policy meeting new content requirements.
  • All employers must have a sexual harassment reporting form meeting new content requirements.
  • All new employees must be trained about the sexual harassment policy within 30 days.
  • Liability now extends to complaints by independent contractors and “gig” workers[1].
  • Sexual Harassment claims cannot be resolved via mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure clauses (with some exceptions).

The resulting need to revise policies, adopt reporting forms, and organize trainings has hit many strategic plans and budgets hard.[2]  Libraries, who always feel budget pressure, are among the not-for-profits feeling the pinch.

Since this law passed along with the budget this spring, I have been counselling clients that this training requirement should not be viewed as simply another unfunded mandate (although it is), but an opportunity.  What kind of opportunity? An opportunity for library leadership to gather and train their valued people to recognize and reject discriminatory behavior right from the start.

But at the end of the day, no matter how worthy the topic, convening personnel and hiring a qualified trainer costs money.  Which brings us to the member’s great questions (underlined below).

First Question: Can we provide training centrally for the employees of member libraries, as long as the training itself meets the minimum training standards?

My answer to this is…Hold on.  Before we talk about resource-sharing, let’s talk about scope:

Trustees, interns, and volunteers should be part of this training.  [3]

Why trustees? When a small institution has a concern related to sexual harassment, trustees become front-line decision-makers.  Further, trustees are generally the “supervisors” of directors—and the new law specifically requires that supervisors be trained.  And finally—but most critically—library trustees set the tone for mission and leadership at the library.  You cannot change or evolve a library’s culture without trustee involvement.

Why interns and volunteers?  This new law comes with liability for harassment directed even at “gig” workers.  This liability can be caused by any person acting on behalf of the library—even a volunteer.  So every person[4] who works at the direction of your institution should know this law, and how to work within it, together.

With that scope of attendance in mind, based on the guidance from the state thus far[5], if the policy and reporting form track the model policies provided by the state: my answer is YES.

 

Second Question: Do different levels of employees need to be provided with different training sessions, for instance do library staff persons need to be provided a training space free of the library director?
NO! In fact, I believe a library would lose much of the value of the sessions if it did so.

Why is that?  While the stark requirement of the policy is to review the law, a side benefit of such a training is creating an esprit de corps for combatting bad behavior together.   That can best happen if each level of authority—from trustee, to supervisor, to employee to intern or volunteer—hears and honors the obligations of the other.[6]

If the different authority levels are balkanized into different trainings, a valuable opportunity to build trust and accountability in service to the library’s mission of equal access is lost.

 

Third Question: Do trustees serving on a library (or any non-profit) board need to participate in this training and if so, do they need their own session?

The new law does not mention training trustees or directors specifically[7].  But since boards generally supervise the Director or Executive Director, and are responsible for a library’s legal compliance in all matters, it is my conclusion that library trustees must be trained. 

And—although my comments above recommend against it—they can be trained separately.[8]

There is a related area, however, where separate training might be appropriate and warranted.  In this day and age, governing boards should know: 1) the library’s insurance coverage for sexual harassment/discrimination claims, 2) the procedure for notifying the insurance carrier of a claim, and 3) how and when to call in third-party investigator to look into a complaint.  Having trustees aware of these things, before a mandatory training under the new law, would be optimal.

 

Fourth Question: It is my understanding that training can only be shared if all the institutions have agreed to the state version of the policy AND been given the state-created training module. Is that true?

Let’s start this answer with what a library is looking for when arranging the required training—a required element of which is a live, in-person trainer that attendees can ask questions of.

What does the library need from this trainer?  At bare minimum, the trainer needs to provide a session that meets the requirements of the law.  Therefore, my guidance to those arranging trainings for a single entity is that the contract or hire letter contain assurance such as:

On [DATE/S], [PROVIDER] will provide [SINGLE INSTITUTION] with an interactive session based on the State of New York’s “Model Sexual Harassment Prevention Training” guidance and [Institution’s] Sexual Harassment Policy and Reporting Form.  When the training is complete, trainer will certify that all elements for sexual harassment trainings required by applicable NYDOL and NYDHR guidance, and the laws of New York, have been met.

For a multi-institution training organized by a membership alliance or network, I suggest that the contract or hire letter contain some extra details, such as:

On [DATE], [Provider] will provide [Institution]’s members with an interactive session based on the State of New York’s “Model Sexual Harassment Prevention Training” guidance and [Institution’s] Sexual Harassment Policy and Reporting Form.  When the training is complete, trainer will certify to each institution that all elements required by applicable NYDOL and NYDHR guidance, and the laws of New York, have been met.

As this is a multi-institutional training, to enable certification for each attending institution, the following practices will be observed:

  • Registration must be complete no more than [one week] before the session.
  • [Institution] must provide trainer with a copy of each participating institution’s sexual harassment policy and reporting forms, no later than [one week] before the session.
  • Each attendee shall register and sign in on a form that notes if they have a supervisory role.
  • When signing in, each attendee shall be given a copy of their institution’s sexual harassment policy and reporting form, and shall sign to acknowledge receipt.
  • When signing in, each attendee shall be given a name tag that notes their institution, and if they are a supervisor.
  • During the training, each attendee shall be addressed by name and given at least one opportunity to role-play or rehearse recognizing or reporting harassment or retaliation.

Attendance is limited to 5 institutions, 60 attendees.[9]

I based this guidance on what will no doubt be the next chapter in this legal saga: allegations of liability due to failure to properly update policies and train personnel. 

The “certification” approach I am suggesting above is not required by the new law.  Rather, it is designed to help your members, or your institution, create a record that will easily demonstrate that they endeavored to follow that law.  It is designed to show that, even if a system or group had to share resources and do a mass training, a truly interactive and meaningful experience was intended.  This is a key element of limiting liability.[10]

 

Conclusion

Of course, in a perfect world, people attend sexual harassment trainings not only to limit liability and because they are compelled to, but to learn how to ensure such behavior is rare, quickly called out, and immediately corrected.

The importance of such training cannot be over-stated.  When I was a 16-year-old page at a public library in the 1990’s, I was harassed by a patron.  I was too young and inexperienced to know my rights, or what to do.  Fortunately, I had the good luck to be on shift with an amazing assistant director[11].   When the bad behavior started, this graceful woman walked over to the patron, and simply said, “This has to stop now.”  And despite his displeasure, it did.[12]

Many decades later, her unambiguous, dignified, and immediate action inspires me, as I hope it does you.

Done right, these mandatory trainings are an opportunity for your library’s team to practice this type of skillful handling.  It is also a chance for supervising staff--who now have the term “mandatory reporter” in their job descriptions—to be assured that they are supported and backed up by informed and committed trustees. 

Finding ways to collaborate and share resources to make such training and practice as accessible and rewarding as possible is a great initiative.  Thank you for this excellent array of questions.



[1] Uber drivers who transport your interlibrary loans, for example.

[2] The State’s late issuance of required guidance—released less than 2 months before the effective date—didn’t help, either.

[3] I know, that’s not really the question.  But this is very, very important.

[4] Yes, some of those volunteers might be very young!  It will be the job of your trainer to train your employees both well, and appropriately.

[5] September 26, 2018. A I write this, they are assessing thousands of public comments—including some submitted by me—and that may change the basis of my advice.  So if you are reading this in 2019, please check for updates.

[6] Just so you know, “my firm belief” is based on years of conducting anti-discrimination trainings, ten years as an in-house counsel at a university, and time as an Interim HR Director.  I am not just going with my gut here.

[7] Nor does the current model policy, report form, or training materials. Considering that New York is a hive of corporations, this void is rather mind-boggling, but these State resources were compiled with haste.  I imagine this will be addressed in later versions.

[9] Or some other reasonable number.  This is just a recommendation.  Basically, you don’t want the number of institutions or attendees to make the “interactive” requirement arguably meaningless.

[10] But by no means the only element.  The most important one will be following the new law, and documenting that you are following it!

[11] Bernice Cosgrove. 

[12] The patron was quite upset.  In retrospect, he may have had some mental health concerns.  These matters often come with complications that require tact, diplomacy, and compassion.

 

Tags: Policy, Sexual Harassment, Board of Trustees

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