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FOIL-AO-16613

 

 

 

                                                                                                June 13, 2007

 

 

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.

Dear:

            As you are aware, I have received your letter in which you sought an advisory opinion relating to a partial denial of a request for records directed to the New York City Industrial Development Agency (NYCIDA), a subsidiary of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. 

            The records at issue involve the contents of a “board meeting book”, which is “roughly the size of a phone book” and is distributed to NYCIDA board members and staff at each meeting.  You added that “[t]he board book contains information pertinent to the meeting and is often referred to during discussions and staff presentations at the meeting.” Although NYCIDA disclosed some elements of the board book, “[h]aving seen the size of board books at the meetings,” you wrote that “know that what was disclosed to [you] is a very small portion of the contents of a board book.”  The denial of access to the remainder was based on §87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law.  You wrote that your “goal is to obtain a complete copy of the board book” and that “[i]f portions of the document are indeed exempt from disclosure [under] FOIL, then [you] want those portions to be redacted rather than withheld in their entirety.”  You sent copies of materials made available to you, resolutions, minutes of a meeting, financial statements, and a progress report.  It appears that other records contained in the board book were withheld in their entirety.

            In this regard, I offer the following comments.

            First, 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 (j) of the Law.

            Second, the provision upon which the NYCIDA relied, §87(2)(g), potentially serves as a basis for denying access.  However, due to its structure, it may require substantial disclosure.  Specifically, §87(2)(g) authorizes 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.

            It cannot be overemphasized 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.

            In this vein, the Court of Appeals confirmed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department [89 NY2d 267 (1996)], 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[4][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)" (id., 275).

            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 Police Department contended that complaint follow up reports could be withheld in their entirety on the ground that they fall within §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.).

            I point out that one of the contentions offered by the agency in Gould was that certain reports could be withheld because they are not final and because they relate to matters 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[2][g][iii)].  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)..." (id., 276).

            In short, that a record is in draft or preliminary would not represent an end of an analysis of rights of access or an agency's obligation to review the entirety of its contents.

            The Court also dealt with the issue of what constitutes "factual data" that must be disclosed under §87(2)(g)(i).  In its consideration of the matter, the Court found that:

"...Although the term 'factual data' is not defined by statute, the meaning of the term can be discerned from the purpose underlying the intra-agency exemption, which is 'to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role [will] be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers' (Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, 132 [quoting Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD2d 546, 549]).  Consistent with this limited aim to safeguard internal government consultations and deliberations, the exemption does not apply when the requested material consists of 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law 87[2][g][I].  Factual data, therefore, simply means objective information, in contrast to opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making (see, Matter of Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Stainkamp, 94 AD2d 825, 827, affd on op below, 61 NY2d 958; Matter of Miracle Mile Assocs. v. Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181-182)” (id., 276-277).

            In sum, to the extent that the materials withheld include statistical or factual tabulations or data, as that phrase has been construed in judicial decisions, or any other information required to be disclosed pursuant to subparagraphs (ii), (iii) or (iv) of §87(2)(g), I believe that those portions must be disclosed, unless a separate basis for denial of access may appropriately be asserted.                                                
Lastly, it has been advised on many occasions that insofar as the contents of records are disclosed through discussion at a meeting open to the public, they must be made available in response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Law.  In short, I believe that public discussion reflective of the contents of the records results in a waiver of the ability to deny access.

            I hope that I have been of assistance.

                                                                                                Sincerely,

                                   
                                                                                                Robert J. Freeman
                                                                                                Executive Director

RJF:tt

cc: Judy Fensterman
David Shelley