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March 23, 1998

Ms. Sonja H. DePalma
154 Cowan Road
Elmira, NY 14901-9225

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. DePalma:

I have received your letter of March 3 in which you described a series
of frustrations relating to your efforts to obtain vital records through a
genealogical search from the Town of Berkshire.

In this regard, although the Freedom of Information Law pertains
generally to access to government records and the fees that may be charged
for copies of records, the provisions of the Public Health Law deal specifically
with birth and death records and fees for services rendered concerning
searches for and copies of those records. Specifically, subdivision (3) of
§4174 refers to searches for and the fees for records sought for genealogical
or research purposes that may be imposed by "any person authorized" by the
State Commissioner of Health, i.e., municipal clerks. That provision states

"For any search of the files and records
conducted for authorized genealogical or
research purposes, the commissioner or any
person authorized by him shall be entitled to,
and the applicant shall pay, a fee of ten dollars
for each hour or fractional part of an hour of
time for search, together with a fee of one
dollar for each uncertified copy or abstract of
such records requested by the applicant or for
a certification that a search discloses no

The manner in which the records of your interest are maintained and
the extent to which they are organized well varies from one municipality to
the next. Similarly, although I do not believe that a town clerk is required to
permit you to search through the records, many clerks do so.

An alternative source of the records is likely the State Department of
Health. In general, its Bureau of Vital Records maintains duplicates of
records of birth, death and marriage regarding all such events occurring
outside of New York City. You may call that office at (518)474-3055 or
write for further information to the Bureau of Vital Records, New York State
Department of Health, Empire State Plaza, Corning Tower, Albany, NY

I hope that I have been of assistance.


Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director