March 29, 2006
FROM: Camille S. Jobin-Davis, Assistant 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.
We are in receipt of your request for an advisory opinion concerning the application of the Freedom of Information Law to requests made to the Greece Central School District. You initially requested that the records be made available to you on a piecemeal basis, and the District initially estimated that it would respond in February of 2003. In this regard, we offer the following comments.
First, since your request was initiated in 2003, it is possible that the District considers the request to have been satisfied or that the request might have been misfiled. To the extent that the District has not yet responded, it is suggested that you submit a new request.
Second, when a proper request is made, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies 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, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied..."
It is noted that new language was added to that provision on May 3 (Chapter 22, Laws of 2005) stating that:
"If circumstances prevent disclosure to the person requesting the record or records within twenty business days from the date of the acknowledgement of the receipt of the request, the agency shall state, in writing, both the reason for the inability to grant the request within twenty business days and a date certain within a reasonable period, depending on the circumstances, when the request will be granted in whole or in part."
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access in writing, or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date within twenty business days indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied. If it is known that circumstances prevent the agency from granting access within twenty business days, or if the agency cannot grant access by the approximate date given and needs more than twenty business days to grant access, however, it must provide a written explanation of its inability to do so and a specific date by which it will grant access. That date must be reasonable in consideration of the circumstances of the request.
The amendments clearly are intended to prohibit agencies from unnecessarily delaying disclosure. They are not intended to permit agencies to wait until the fifth business day following the receipt of a request and then twenty additional business days to determine rights of access, unless it is reasonable to do so based upon "the circumstances of the request." It is our perspective that every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and we point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, when records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has asserted:
"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring 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" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
In a judicial decision concerning the reasonableness of a delay in disclosure that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office concerning reasonable grounds for delaying disclosure, it was held that:
"The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL"(Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001).
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time beyond the approximate date of less than twenty business days given in its acknowledgement, if it acknowledges that a request has been received, but has failed to grant access by the specific date given beyond twenty business days, or if the specific date given is unreasonable, a request may be considered to have been constructively denied [see §89(4)(a)]. In such a circumstance, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a), which 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."
Section 89(4)(b) was also amended, and it states that a failure to determine an appeal within ten business days of the receipt of an appeal constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, 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 Rules.
Third, it is likely that many of the records which you have requested should be made available to the public in their entirety. 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.
From our perspective, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and similar records reflective of expenses incurred by an agency or payments made to an agency's staff or outside contractors must generally be disclosed, for none of the grounds for denial could appropriately be asserted to withhold those kinds of records. Likewise, in our opinion, a contract between an administrator, for example, and a school district or board of education clearly must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law.
In analyzing the issue, the provision of greatest significance in our opinion is §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, we believe that a contract between a school district and an individual, like 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 reflective of the responsibilities of the parties.
With regard to your request that records be made available on a piecemeal basis, we point out that an agency, pursuant to §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law, may require that a request be made in writing, even when records are clearly accessible to the public. This is not to suggest that an agency must require an applicant to seek records in writing; on the contrary, the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government state that an agency "may make records available upon oral request" [21 NYCRR §1401.5(a)].
Most important in our view, every law, including the Freedom of Information Law, should be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent. To give reasonable effect to the intent of the Freedom of Information Law, we believe that an agency must grant access to records "wherever and whenever feasible." The phrase quoted in the preceding sentence appears in §84, the legislative declaration, which states in part that:
"The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.
"As 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 extent public accountability wherever and whenever feasible" (emphasis added).
From our perspective, if records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law and if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure. Taking the time to appoint a new FOIL appeals officer, in our opinion, would not serve as reasonable basis for delaying a substantive response to your request.
In sum, insofar as the request involves records that are clearly public and readily retrievable, we believe that a delay in disclosure of as much as thirty days would be inconsistent with the intent of the law and its judicial construction.
We point out, too, that a school district’s proposed budget, also known as its "estimated expenditures", must include details regarding the compensation paid to a superintendent and certain administrators. Subdivision (5) of §1716 of the Education Law states in relevant part that:
"The board of education shall append to the statement of estimated expenditures a detailed statement of the total compensation to be paid to the superintendent of schools, and any assistant or associate superintendents of schools in the ensuing school year, including a delineation of the salary, annualized cost of benefits and any in-kind or other form of remuneration. The board shall also append a list of all other school administrators and supervisors, if any, whose annual salary will be eighty-five thousand dollars or more in the ensuing school year, with the title of their positions and annual salary identified..."
In an effort to enhance understanding of and compliance with the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this advisory opinion will be forwarded to the District.
cc: Records Access Officer, Greece Central School District