September 14, 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 facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your memorandum in which you asked whether "a tape recorded at an executive session [of the Somers Town Board] could be FOILED" and whether "it is still able to be FOILED due to the nature of receiving Legal Advice."
In this regard, first, there is no statute that deals directly with the taping of executive sessions. Several judicial decisions, however, have dealt with the ability to use recording devices at open meetings, and although those decisions do not refer to the taping of executive sessions, their thrust is pertinent to the matter. Perhaps the leading decision concerning the use of tape recorders at meetings, a unanimous decision of the Appellate Division, involved the invalidation of a resolution adopted by a board of education prohibiting the use of tape recorders at its meetings [Mitchell v. Board of Education of Garden City School District, 113 AD 2d 924 (1985)]. In so holding, the Court stated that:
"While Education Law sec. 1709(1) authorizes a board of education to adopt by-laws and rules for its government and operations, this authority is not unbridled. Irrational and unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned. Moreover, Public Officers Law sec. 107(1) specifically provides that 'the court shall have the power, in its discretion, upon good cause shown, to declare any action *** taken
in violation of [the Open Meetings Law], void in whole or in part.' Because we find that a prohibition against the use of unobtrusive recording goal of a fully informed citizenry, we accordingly affirm the judgement annulling the resolution of the respondent board of education" (id. at 925).
In view of the judicial determination rendered by the Appellate Division, I believe that any person may tape record open meetings of public bodies, so long as tape recording is carried out unobtrusively and in a manner that does not detract from the deliberative process.
Again, while there are no decisions that deal with the use of tape recorders during executive sessions, I believe that the principle in determining that issue is the same as that stated above, i.e., that the Board may establish reasonable rules governing the use of tape recorders at executive sessions.
Unlike an open meeting, when comments are conveyed with the public present, an executive session is generally held in order that the public cannot be aware of the details of the deliberative process. When representatives of public bodies have asked whether they should tape record executive sessions, I have suggested that doing so may result in unforeseen and potentially damaging consequences. For reasons to be discussed later in detail, I believe that a tape recording is a "record" as that term is defined in section 86(4) of the Freedom of Information Law and, therefore, would be subject to rights conferred by that statute. Further, a tape recording of an executive session may be subject to subpoena or discovery in the context of litigation. Disclosure in that kind of situation may place a public body at a disadvantage should litigation arise relative to a topic that has been appropriately discussed behind closed doors.
In short, I am suggesting that tape recording an executive session could potentially defeat the purpose of holding an executive session, and that, in my opinion, the Board could, by rule, prohibit the use of a tape recorder at an executive session absent the consent of a majority of the board.
Second, from my perspective, a tape recording of an executive session would fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. That statute pertains to all agency records and defines the term "record" expansively to include:
"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."
The Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, has construed the definition as broadly as its specific language suggests. The first such decision that dealt squarely with the scope of the term "record" involved documents pertaining to a lottery sponsored by a fire department. Although the agency contended that the documents did not pertain to the performance of its official duties, i.e., fighting fires, but rather to a "nongovernmental" activity, the Court rejected the claim of a "governmental versus nongovernmental dichotomy" [see Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581 (1980)] and found that the documents constituted "records" subject to rights of access granted by the Law. Moreover, the Court determined that:
"The statutory definition of 'record' makes nothing turn on the purpose for which it relates. This conclusion accords with the spirit as well as the letter of the statute. For not only are the expanding boundaries of governmental activity increasingly difficult to draw, but in perception, if not in actuality, there is bound to be considerable crossover between governmental and nongovernmental activities, especially where both are carried on by the same person or persons" (id.).
Additionally, in another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, the Court focused on an agency claim that it could "engage in unilateral prescreening of those documents which it deems to be outside of the scope of FOIL" and found that such activity "would be inconsistent with the process set forth in the statute" [Capital Newspapers v. Whalen, 69 NY 2d 246, 253 (1987)]. The Court determined that:
"...the procedure permitting an unreviewable prescreening of documents - which respondents urge us to engraft on the statute - could be used by an uncooperative and obdurate public official or agency to block an entirely legitimate request. There would be no way to prevent a custodian of records from removing a public record from FOIL's reach by simply labeling it 'purely private.' Such a construction, which would thwart the entire objective of FOIL by creating an easy means of avoiding compliance, should be rejected" (id., 254).
Based upon the foregoing, I believe that the tape recording would constitute a "record" that falls within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
With respect to the public’s right to obtain the tape recording, as in the case of other records, its content is the primary factor in determining rights of access. As you are likely aware, 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 (j) of the Law.
In my view, at least three of the grounds for denial are pertinent to an analysis of rights of access.
The first ground for denial, §87(2)(a), pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." For more than a century, the courts have found that legal advice given by a municipal attorney to his or her clients, municipal officials, is privileged when it is prepared in conjunction with an attorney-client relationship [see e.g., People ex rel. Updyke v. Gilon, 9 NYS 243, 244 (1889); Pennock v. Lane, 231 NYS 2d 897, 898, (1962); Bernkrant v. City Rent and Rehabilitation Administration, 242 NYS 2d 752 (1963), aff'd 17 App. Div. 2d 392]. As such, I believe that a municipal attorney may engage in a privileged relationship with his client and that records prepared in conjunction with an attorney-client relationship are considered privileged under §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Further, since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, it has been found that records may be withheld when the privilege can appropriately be asserted when the attorney-client privilege is read in conjunction with §87(2)(a) of the Law [see e.g., Mid-Boro Medical Group v. New York City Department of Finance, Sup. Ct., Bronx Cty., NYLJ, December 7, 1979; Steele v. NYS Department of Health, 464 NY 2d 925 (1983)]. Similarly, the work product of an attorney may be confidential under §3101(c) of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. In my view, there need not be litigation for there to be an attorney-client relationship or to assert the attorney-client privilege.
In a discussion of the parameters of the attorney-client relationship and the conditions precedent to its initiation, it has been held that:
"In general, 'the privilege applies only if (1) the asserted holder of the privilege is or sought to become a client; (2) the person to whom the communication was made (a) is a member of the bar of a court, or his subordinate and (b) in connection with this communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed (a) by his client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of securing primarily either (I) an opinion on law or (ii) legal services (iii) assistance in some legal proceeding, and not (d) for the purpose of committing a crime or tort; and (4) the privilege has been (a) claimed and (b) not waived by the client'" [People v. Belge, 59 AD 2d 307, 399 NYS 2d 539, 540 (1977)].
Based on the foregoing, assuming that the privilege has not been intelligently and purposely waived, insofar as the tape consists of legal advice or opinion provided by counsel to the client, I believe that it would be confidential pursuant to §4503 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules and, therefore, exempted from disclosure under §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law.
Another ground for denial of potential significance, §87(2)(g), 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 communications captured on tape appear to consist of intra- agency material falling within the scope of §87(2)(g).
The remaining provision of possible significance, §87(2)(c), authorizes an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would "impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations."
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman