April 6, 2006
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.
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 Gordon Heights Fire District. Specifically, you have requested access to or a copy of the sign-in book maintained by the Fire District in conjunction with a recent election, and documents reflecting the basis for postage spent in November and December.
With respect to your questions about the timing of the responses to your requests, 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.
With respect to your specific question, whether "very little secretarial and clerical staff" constitutes a legitimate ground for failing to comply with the provisions of the law, we are of the opinion that it is not. Further, it is our opinion that the sign-in book for the election which you request and records reflecting postage spent should be made available to the public, and that there is likely no reasonable basis for taking more than five business days to disclose them.
We note initially that the voter list maintained by a county board of elections is based on "actual voting" by citizens; if a person fails to vote within a certain number of years, his or her name is removed from the list.
Second, §89(6) of the Freedom of Information Law states that:
"Nothing in this article shall be construed to limit or abridge any otherwise available right of access at law or in equity to any party to records."
As such, if records are available as a right under a different provision of law or by means of judicial determination, nothing in the Freedom of Information Law can serve to diminish rights of access [see e.g., Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS 2d 558, 583 (1981)]. Relevant in this instance is §5-602 of the Election Law, entitled "Lists of registered voters; publication of", which states that voter registration lists are public. Specifically, subdivision (1) of that statute provides in part that a "board of elections shall cause to be published a complete list of names and residence addresses of the registered voters for each election district over which the board has jurisdiction"; subdivision (2) states that "The board of elections shall cause a list to be published for each election district over which it has jurisdiction"; subdivision (3) requires that at least fifty copies of such lists shall be prepared, that at least five copies be kept "for public inspection at each main office or branch of the board", and that "other copies shall be sold at a charge not exceeding the cost of publication." As such, §5-602 of the Election Law directs that lists of registered voters be prepared, made available for inspection, and that copies shall be sold.
The provisions of the Election Law cited above pertain to voter registration lists prepared and maintained by county boards of elections. However, the information at issue would be available to any person, irrespective of the intended use, from the County Board of Elections and/or the Fire District. That being so, and in consideration of the direction provided in the Election Law, we do not believe that there is any basis for withholding the sign in sheet or list of those who voted in the Fire District. Since §5-602 of the Election Law confers unrestricted public rights of access to voter registration lists, the same or similar records maintained by a fire district should, in our view, be equally available.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 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. Because it is unlikely that there are any grounds for refusing to disclose records reflecting monies spent by the Fire District for postage, it is our opinion that the records, if they exist, should be made available.
On behalf of the Committee on Open Government, we hope this is helpful to you.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis
cc: Hon. Patricia A. Eddington