June 25, 2003
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.
I have received your letter and the correspondence attached to it. According to the materials, on May 6, you requested copies of current and previous contracts between the Enlarged School District of the City of Watervliet and its superintendent and the current teachers' contract. Because you received no response, you wrote again to the District to remind the Superintendent of your request. As of the date of your letter to this office, there had still been no response to your request.
In this regard, first, you referred in your request to the federal Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, which generally apply to records of federal agencies. The applicable statute in this instance is the New York Freedom of Information Law.
Second, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which an agency, such as a school district, must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied [see DeCorse v. City of Buffalo, 239 AD2d 949, 950 (1997)]. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY2d 774 (1982)].
Third, 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.
Contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and similar records reflective of expenses incurred by an agency or payments made to an agency's staff must generally be disclosed, for none of the grounds for denial could appropriately be asserted to withhold those kinds of records. Likewise, in my opinion, a contract between an administrator, such as a superintendent, and a school district or board of education clearly must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law. It is noted that there is nothing in the statute Law that deals specifically with personnel records or personnel files. Further, the nature and content of so-called personnel files may differ from one agency to another, and from one employee to another. In any case, neither the characterization of documents as "personnel records" nor their placement in personnel files would necessarily render those documents confidential or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law (see Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980). On the contrary, the contents of those documents serve as the relevant factors in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law.
The provision in the Freedom of Information Law of most significance under the circumstances is, in my view, §87(2)(b). That provision permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy".
While the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public officers employees. It is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public officers and employees are required to be more accountable than others. Further, with regard to records pertaining to public officers and employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a their official duties 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 records are irrelevant to the performance of one's 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].
In a discussion of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law by the state's highest court in a case cited earlier, the Court of Appeals in Capital Newspapers, supra, found that the statute:
"affords all citizens the means to obtain information concerning the day-to-day functioning of state and local government thus providing the electorate with sufficient information to 'make intelligent, informed choices with respect to both the direction and scope of governmental activities' and with an effective tool for exposing waste, negligence and abuse on the part of government officers" (67 NY 2d at 566).
In sum, I believe that a superintendent's contract, or a collective bargaining agreement between a public employer and a public employee union, must be disclosed, for it is clearly relevant to the duties, terms and conditions regarding the employment of a public employee or employees.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the Superintendent.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Carol Carlson