July 11, 2005
I appreciate having received a copy of your determination of an appeal by Ms. Marie Martell made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law. She has taken issue with an element of that determination. Specifically, in your consideration of §87(2)(g) and "the four categories of non-exempt documents" referenced in that provision, you wrote that "they all share one common characteristic: they reflect conditions or facts which already exist" (emphasis yours). From my perspective, based on the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, your contention is inaccurate.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the characterization of a record as "draft" or "preliminary" is not determinative of rights of access. I point out that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to all agency records, and that §86(4) of the Law 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, when information is maintained by an agency in some physical form (i.e., drafts, worksheets, computer disks, etc.), I believe that it would constitute a "record" subject to rights of access.
Second, 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. As you are aware, §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law 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.
In a case involving "budget worksheets", it was held that numerical figures, including estimates and projections of proposed expenditures developed prior to the adoption of a budget, are accessible, even though they may have been advisory, preliminary and subject to change. In that case, I believe that the records at issue contained three columns of numbers related to certain areas of expenditures. One column consisted of a breakdown of expenditures for the current fiscal year; the second consisted of a breakdown of proposed expenditures recommended by a state agency; the third consisted of a breakdown of proposed expenditures recommended by a budget examiner for the Division of the Budget. Although the latter two columns were merely estimates and subject to modification, they were found to be "statistical tabulations" accessible under the Freedom of Information Law as originally enacted [see Dunlea v. Goldmark, 380 NYS 2d 496, aff'd 54 AD 2d 446, aff'd 43 NY 2d 754 (1977)]. At that time, the Freedom of Information Law granted access to "statistical or factual tabulations" [see original Law, §88(1)(d)]. Currently, §87(2)(g)(i) requires the disclosure of "statistical or factual tabulations or data". As stated by the Appellate Division in Dunlea:
"[I]t is readily apparent that the language statistical or factual tabulation was meant to be something other than an expression of opinion or naked argument for or against a certain position. The present record contains the form used for work sheets and it apparently was designed to accomplish a statistical or factual presentation of data primarily in tabulation form. In view of the broad policy of public access expressed in §85 the work sheets have been shown by the appellants as being not a record made available in §88" (54 Ad 2d 446, 448)."
The Court was also aware of the fact that the records were used in the deliberative process, stating that:
"The mere fact that the document is a part of the deliberative process is irrelevant in New York State because §88 clearly makes the back-up factual or statistical information to a final decision available to the public. This necessarily means that the deliberative process is to be a subject of examination although limited to tabulations. In particular, there is no statutory requirement that such data be limited to 'objective' information and there no apparent necessity for such a limitation" (id. at 449).
Based upon the language of the determination quoted above, which was affirmed by the state's highest court, it is my view that the records, to the extent that they consist of "statistical or factual tabulations or data", are accessible, unless a provision other than §87(2)(g) could be asserted as a basis for denial, even though they do not pertain to events or actions that have already occurred or to conditions that already exist.
I hope that the foregoing will be enlightening and that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Marie L. Martell