June 17, 2003
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 facts presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your letter concerning a denial of a request for certain records maintained by the Erie County Department of Emergency Services. Specifically, you sought records indicating the "training levels" of volunteer firefighters in the County, but the Commissioner of the Department has, in your words, "deemed the information not available through the F.O.I.L process."
From my perspective, the records at issue must be disclosed either by the County or by volunteer fire companies. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law is expansive in its coverage, for it pertains to all agency records. Section 86(4) defines the term "record" to mean"
"...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."
Based on the foregoing, the kinds of materials that you requested that are maintained by or for an agency, irrespective of their origin or function, in my view, clearly constitute "records" that fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
Section 86(3) states that an "agency" is:
"...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."
In consideration of the language quoted above, an agency generally is an entity of state or local government, such as Erie County. However, 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, despite 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 oad 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).
"True, the Legislature, in separately delineating the powers and duties of volunteer fire departments, for example, has nowhere included an obligation comparable to that spelled out in the Freedom of Information statute (see Village Law, art 10; see, also, 39 NY Jur, Municipal Corporations, §§560-588). But, absent a provision exempting volunteer fire departments from the reach of article 6-and there is none-we attach no significance to the fact that these or other particular agencies, regular or volunteer, are not expressly included. For the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as oad 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 ing 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].
Moreover, although it was contended that documents concerning the lottery were not subject to the Freedom of Information Law because they did not pertain to the performance of the company's fire fighting duties, the Court held that the documents constituted "records" subject to the Freedom of Information Law [see §86(4)].
Again, due to the determination that volunteer fire companies are subject to the Freedom of Information Law and the oad definition of the term "record", the materials of your interest would be subject to rights of access, whether they are maintained by the County, by a volunteer fire company, or both.
Third, with respect to rights of access, 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.
While volunteer firefighters are not public employees per se, based on the thrust of the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, it is clear in my view that the Court determined that they and the organizations they serve must be as accountable to the public as governmental entities. That being so, I believe that records indicating the nature or level or training attained by a volunteer firefighter must be disclosed.
In ief, the courts have found in a variety of contexts that records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of a public officer or employee, or in this instance, firefighters on whom the public depends, are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that items relating to those persons are irrelevant to the performance of their official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977, dealing with membership in a union; Minerva v. Village of Valley Stream, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., May 20, 1981, involving the back of a check payable to a municipal attorney that could indicate how that person spends his/her money; Selig v. Sielaff, 200 AD 2d 298 (1994), concerning disclosure of social security numbers].
In conjunction with the foregoing, I note that it has been held by the Appellate Division that disclosure of one's educational background would not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and must be disclosed [see Ruberti, Girvin & Ferlazzo v. NYS Division of State Police, 641 NYS 2d 411, 218 AD 2d 494 (1996)].
Additionally, in the lower court decision rendered in Kwasnik v. City of New York, [Supreme Court, New York County, September 26, 1997; affirmed , 262 AD 2d 171 (1997)], the court cited and relied upon an opinion rendered by this office and held that those portions of applications or resumes, including information detailing one's prior public employment, must be disclosed. The Court quoted from the Committee's opinion, which stated that:
"If, for example, an individual must have certain types of experience, educational accomplishments or certifications as a condition precedent to serving in [a] particular position, those aspects of a resume or application would in my view be relevant to the performance of the official duties of not only the individual to whom the record pertains, but also the appointing agency or officers ... to the extent that records sought contain information pertaining to the requirements that must have been met to hold the position, they should be disclosed, for I believe that disclosure of those aspects of documents would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion [of] personal privacy. Disclosure represents the only means by which the public can be aware of whether the incumbent of the position has met the requisite criteria for serving in that position.
Based on the thrust of the judicial decisions cited above, disclosure of records or portions of records indicating the training levels of volunteer firefighters would constitute a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. That being so, I believe that they must be disclosed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Commissioner Walters