February 5, 2002
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your letter of January 17. You referred to an article appearing in the Elmira Star Gazette in 1999 in which my comments were reported concerning a not-for-profit corporation, the Southern Tier Economic Development Corporation ("STED"). That entity, according to your letter, "was given control" over a local hockey arena, which was constructed with eight million dollars in government funds, and its board of directors included several government officials. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you indicated that the STED does not abide by the laws that typically require government accountability.
In this regard, from my perspective, it is unclear whether STED is subject to the Freedom of Information Law. That statute applies to agencies, and §86(3) defines the term "agency" to mean:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
Based on the foregoing, an agency typically is an entity of state or local government; not-for-profit and other corporate entities are generally not subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
There are judicial decisions, however, that indicate that a not-for-profit entity may be an agency, despite its corporate status, if there is substantial governmental control over its operations. For instance, in Westchester-Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball [50 NY2d 575 (1980)], a case involving access to records relating to a lottery conducted by a volunteer fire company, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, found that volunteer fire companies, notwithstanding their status as not-for-profit corporations, are "agencies" subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In so holding, the Court stated that:
"We begin by rejecting respondent's contention that, in applying the Freedom of Information Law, a distinction is to be made between a volunteer organization on which a local government relies for performance of an essential public service, as is true of the fire department here, and on the other hand, an organic arm of government, when that is the channel through which such services are delivered. Key is the Legislature's own unmistakably broad declaration that, '[a]s state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' (emphasis added; Public Officers Law, §§84).
For the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objections cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" (id. at 579].
In the same decision, the Court noted that:
"...not only are the expanding boundaries of governmental activity increasingly difficult to draw, but in perception, if not in actuality, there is bound to be considerable crossover between governmental and nongovernmental activities, especially where both are carried on by the same person or persons" (id., 581).
More recently, in the case to which you referred, Buffalo News v. Buffalo Enterprise Development Corporation [84 NY 2d 488 (1994)], the Court of Appeals found again that a not-for- profit corporation, based on its relationship to an agency, was itself an agency subject to the Freedom of Information Law. The decision indicates that:
"The BEDC principally pegs its argument for nondisclosure on the feature that an entity qualifies as an 'agency' only if there is substantial governmental control over its daily operations (see, e.g., Irwin Mem. Blood Bank of San Francisco Med. Socy. v American Natl. Red Cross, 640 F2d 1051; Rocap v Indiek, 519 F2d 174). The Buffalo News counters by arguing that the City of Buffalo is 'inextricably involved in the core planning and execution of the agency's [BEDC] program'; thus, the BEDC is a 'governmental entity' performing a governmental function for the City of Buffalo, within the statutory definition.
"The BEDC's purpose is undeniably governmental. It was created exclusively by and for the City of Buffalo...In sum, the constricted construction urged by appellant BEDC would contradict the expansive public policy dictates underpinning FOIL. Thus, we reject appellant's arguments," (id., 492-493).
Your letter does not include detail concerning the creation of STED, i.e., whether it was created through the interest of the business community, or perhaps by government.
If STED is a creation of government or if government has substantial control over its operations, I believe that it would fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. For instance, if a majority of its board of directors consists of or is appointed by government officials, again, I believe that it would be subject to the Freedom of Information Law. However, if there is no substantial control, the conclusion may be different.
Lastly, even if STED is not subject to the Freedom of Information Law, records pertaining to it may nonetheless be available. That statute is applicable to agency records, and §86(4) defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."
Due to the breadth of the definition, when records involving STED come into the possession of a member of its board who serves due to his or her government position, I believe that they would constitute agency records that fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Southern Tier Economic Development Corporation