May 11, 2005
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 materials attached to it. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
In a request made to the Town of Mamakating Planning Board on behalf of your clients, you sought records "with respect to a Final Environmental Impact Statement or that may refer to such a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Yukiguni Maitake Manufacturing Company of America", including "records from Lanc & Tully Engineering and Surveying, Alan Sorenson, and any and all records from Fire Chief Richard Dunn." In denying the request in its entirety, the attorney for the Planning Board contended that "correspondence and recommendations between the Planning Board and its Engineer and/or Planner would be classified as intra-agency materials." He added that "less clear...is the applicability of the intra-agency exemption to your request for the a copy of the draft FEIS prepared for the benefit of the Planning Board by the applicant", and he expressed the belief that the draft FEIS prepared by the applicant also constitutes intra-agency material that may be withheld.
From my perspective, records prepared for an agency by its employees or consultants constitute intra-agency materials that should likely have been disclosed in part. I disagree with the contention that records submitted by or on behalf of an applicant may be characterized as intra-agency materials. On the contrary, I believe that they are accessible. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
The Court of Appeals confirmed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law most recently in Gould v. New York City Police Department, stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" [89 NY2d 267, 275 (1996)].
Just as significant, the Court in Gould repeatedly specified that a categorical denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law. In that case, the New York City Police Department contended that complaint follow up reports could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within the exception regarding intra-agency materials, §87(2)(g). The Court, however, wrote that: "Petitioners contend that because the complaint follow-up reports contain factual data, the exemption does not justify complete nondisclosure of the reports. We agree" (id., 276), and stated as a general principle that "blanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government" (id., 275). The Court also offered guidance to agencies and lower courts in determining rights of access and referred to several decisions it had previously rendered, stating that:
"...to invoke one of the exemptions of section 87(2), the agency must articulate 'particularized and specific justification' for not disclosing requested documents (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, supra, 47 N.Y.2d, at 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463). If the court is unable to determine whether withheld documents fall entirely within the scope of the asserted exemption, it should conduct an in camera inspection of representative documents and order disclosure of all nonexempt, appropriately redacted material (see, Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 N.Y.2d 131, 133, 490 N.Y.S. 2d, 488, 480 N.E.2d 74; Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., supra, 62 N.Y.2d, at 83, 476 N.Y.S.2d 69, 464 N.E.2d 437)" (id.).
While §87(2)(g) potentially serves as one of the grounds for denial of access to records, due to its structure, it often requires substantial disclosure. The cited provision permits an agency to withhold records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.
The same kind of analysis would apply with respect to records prepared by consultants for agencies, for the Court of Appeals has held that:
"Opinions and recommendations prepared by agency personnel may be exempt from disclosure under FOIL as 'predecisional materials, prepared to assist an agency decision maker***in arriving at his decision' (McAulay v. Board of Educ., 61 AD 2d 1048, aff'd 48 NY 2d 659). Such material is exempt 'to protect the deliberative process of government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role would be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers (Matter of Sea Crest Const. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD 2d 546, 549).
"In connection with their deliberative process, agencies may at times require opinions and recommendations from outside consultants. It would make little sense to protect the deliberative process when such reports are prepared by agency employees yet deny this protection when reports are prepared for the same purpose by outside consultants retained by agencies. Accordingly, we hold that records may be considered 'intra-agency material' even though prepared by an outside consultant at the behest of an agency as part of the agency's deliberative process (see, Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD 2d 546, 549, supra; Matter of 124 Ferry St. Realty Corp. v. Hennessy, 82 AD 2d 981, 983)" [Xerox Corporation v. Town of Webster, 65 NY 2d 131, 132-133 (1985)].
Based upon the foregoing, records prepared by a consultant for an agency may be withheld or must be disclosed based upon the same standards as in cases in which records are prepared by the staff of an agency.
It is emphasized that the Court in Xerox specified that the contents of intra-agency materials determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:
"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials,' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[g][i], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" (id. at 133).
Therefore, a record prepared by a consultant for an agency or, for example, by the Town’s Fire Chief, would be accessible or deniable, in whole or in part, depending on its contents.
I note that in Gould, supra, one of the contentions was that certain intra-agency materials could be withheld because they were not final and because they related to incidents for which no final determination had been made. The Court rejected that finding and stated that:
"...we note that one court has suggested that complaint follow-up reports are exempt from disclosure because they constitute nonfinal intra-agency material, irrespective of whether the information contained in the reports is 'factual data' (see, Matter of Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD2d 443, 444, supra [citing Public Officers Law §87[g]). However, under a plain reading of §87(2)(g), the exemption for intra-agency material does not apply as long as the material falls within any one of the provision's four enumerated exceptions. Thus, intra-agency documents that contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' are subject to FOIL disclosure, whether or not embodied in a final agency policy or determination (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 62 NY2d 75, 83, supra; Matter of MacRae v. Dolce, 130 AD2d 577)..." [Gould et al. v. New York City Police Department, 87 NY2d 267, 276 (1996)].
In short, that records are characterized as "draft" or "non-final" would not represent an end of an analysis of rights of access or an agency's obligation to review the entirety of their contents to determine rights of access.
Second, it is reiterated that Xerox, supra, dealt with reports prepared "by outside consultants retained by agencies" (id. 133). In such cases, it was found that the records prepared by consultants should be treated as if they were prepared by agency staff and should, therefore, be considered intra-agency materials. As the term "consultant" is ordinarily used and according to an ordinary dictionary definition of that term, a consultant is an expert or a person or firm providing professional advice or services. In the context of the Xerox decision, I believe that a consultant would be a person or firm "retained" for compensation by an agency to provide a service.
Neither the applicant nor the applicant’s agent’s representatives or agents would be retained for compensation or paid by the Town to provide advice or recommendations. That being so, the records prepared by or for the applicant, in my opinion, could not be characterized as "intra-agency materials" that fall within the scope of §87(2)(g). Further, because that exception would not apply, considerations concerning the status of records as drafts or in relation to finality are irrelevant. In short, I believe that those records must be made available in their entirety, for none of the exceptions to rights of access may properly be asserted.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Town Board
Ira J. Cohen