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April 1, 1997

 

 

 

Ms. Anne M. Miller, Vice President
Citizens for Accountability and Reform in Education (CARE)
204 True Hickory Drive
Rochester, NY 14615

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.

Dear Ms. Miller:

I have received your letter of March 17, as well as the materials attached to it. You have requested an advisory opinion on behalf of Citizens for Accountability and Reform in Education (CARE) concerning a request for records of the Greece Central School District.

By way of background, on February 18, the president of CARE applied to inspect "a copy of the tentative contract agreement between the GTA union and the district to include all related financial data and all info that has been or will be shared with GTA members..." In addition, he asked that "any reason for denial [be given] in writing." Soon after, the District Clerk indicated in writing that the tentative agreement "will be available following ratification by both parties." The president objected to the response because it neither included a reason for the denial nor reference to the right to appeal the denial. The clerk thereafter denied the request on the ground that disclosure would "impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations" and informed CARE's representative of the right to appeal. Further, according to a news article, the Superintendent determined not to release the tentative agreement, stating that "[i]t is not a contract until it is ratified." Another article indicated that the tentative agreement had been distributed to hundreds of GTA members for their review.

In a letter of March 5 sent by CARE's attorney to the District's appeals officer, it was contended that the basis for denial offered by the District was unjustifiable, for the negotiations had ended. Moreover, he claimed, and his claim was later confirmed by means of news articles, that the tentative agreement was disclosed to the news media.

The matter is apparently moot, for the record in question was eventually disclosed and ratified by the teachers' union. However, you sought an advisory opinion concerning rights of access to the tentative agreement at the time that it was requested, and in an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, I offer the following comments.

As a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.

From my perspective, only one of the grounds for denial, §87(2)(c), is pertinent to an analysis of rights of access to a tentative agreement in the circumstances described in the materials. As you may be aware, that provision permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure "would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations." The key word in that provision in my opinion is "impair", and the question in the context of the award of contracts or, as in this situation, collective bargaining negotiations, involves whether or the extent to which disclosure would "impair" the process by diminishing the ability of the government to reach an optimal agreement on behalf of the taxpayers. That a contract has not been signed or ratified, in my view, is not determinative of rights of access or, conversely, an agency's ability to deny access to records. Rather, I believe that consideration of the effects of disclosure is the primary factor in determining the extent to which §87(2)(c) may justifiably be asserted.

As I understand its application, §87(2)(c) generally encompasses situations in which an agency or a party to negotiations maintains records that have not been made available to others. For example, if an agency seeking bids or proposals has received a number of bids, but the deadline for their submission has not been reached, premature disclosure for the bids to another possible submitter might provide that person or firm with an unfair advantage vis a vis those who already submitted bids. Further, disclosure of the identities of bidders or the number of bidders might enable another potential bidder to tailor his bid in a manner that provides him with an unfair advantage in the bidding process. In such a situation, harm or "impairment" would likely be the result, and the records could justifiably be denied. However, after the deadline for submission of bids or proposals are available after a contract has been awarded, and that, in view of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law, "the successful bidder had no reasonable expectation of not having its bid open to the public" [Contracting Plumbers Cooperative Restoration Corp. v. Ameruso, 105 Misc. 2d 951, 430 NYS 2d 196, 198 (1980)]. Similarly, if an agency is involved in collective bargaining negotiations with a public employee union, and the union requests records reflective of the agency's strategy, the items that it considers to be important or otherwise, its estimates and projections, it is likely that disclosure to the union would place the agency at an unfair disadvantage at the bargaining table and, therefore, that disclosure would "impair" negotiating the process.

I point out that the Court of Appeals sustained the assertion of §87(2)(c) in a case that did not clearly involve "contract awards" or collective bargaining negotiations. In Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency [56 NY2d 888 (1982)], the issue pertained to real property transactions where appraisals in possession of an agency were requested prior to the consummation of a transaction. Because premature disclosure would have enabled the public to know the prices the agency sought, thereby potentially precluding the agency from receiving optimal prices, the agency's denial was upheld [see Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency, 56 NY 2d 888 (1982)].

In each of the kinds of the situations described above, there is an inequality of knowledge. In the bid situation, the person who seeks bids prior to the deadline for their submission is presumably unaware of the content of the bids that have already been submitted; in the context of collective bargaining, the union would not have all of the agency's records relevant to the negotiations; in the appraisal situation, the person seeking that record is unfamiliar with its contents. As suggested above, premature disclosure of bids would enable a potential bidder to gain knowledge in a manner unfair to other bidders and possibly to the detriment of an agency and, therefore, the public. Disclosure of an records regarding collective bargaining strategy or appraisals would provide knowledge to the recipient that might effectively prevent an agency from engaging in an agreement that is most beneficial to taxpayers.

In a case involving negotiations between a New York City agency and the Trump organization, the court referred to an opinion that I prepared and adopted the reasoning offered therein, stating that:

"Section 87(2)(c) relates to withholding records whose release could impair contract awards. However, here this was not relevant because there is no bidding process involved where an edge could be unfairly given to one company. Neither is this a situation where the release of confidential information as to the value or appraisals of property could lead to the City receiving less favorable price.

"In other words, since the Trump organization is the only party involved in these negotiations, there is no inequality of knowledge between other entities doing business with the City" [Community Board 7 v. Schaffer, 570 NYS 2d 769, 771 (1991); Aff'd 83 AD 2d 422; reversed on other grounds 84 NY 2d 148 (1994)].

Based on the foregoing, because the record at issue was known to both parties to the negotiations and in fact had been distributed to widely to members of the GTA, the rationale described above and the judicial decisions rendered to date suggest that §87(2)(c) could not justifiably have been asserted to withhold the record.

If indeed the document had been disseminated to hundreds of union members, very simply, I do not believe that it could have been characterized as secret or deniable. Further, irrespective of how the news media might have obtained a copy of the tentative agreement, once that occurred and the news media reported its contents, I believe that the District would have lost its ability to assert §87(2)(c). In short, the record would have effectively been disclosed to the public. And finally, as I understand the matter, collective bargaining negotiations had ended. I recognize that if either side rejected the tentative agreement, the parties might have been forced to reopen the negotiations. Nevertheless, in view of the factors described above, even if that occurred, it does not appear that either party to the negotiations would have been disadvantaged by such a disclosure vis a vis the other. Again, both parties would have been fully aware of the contents of the documentation; there would have been no inequality of knowledge.

A copy of this opinion will be forwarded to District Officials.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Raymond Page
Donald Nadolinski