September 20, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your correspondence concerning “whether documents prepared by an association library specifically for a request for library registration by NYS are public documents.” You indicated that, during our discussion of the matter, it was advised that “such documents become public when they are submitted by the library board to any public entity but that, with the exception of an annual report to the community (CR 90.2) they are not public documents if they have not been submitted to any public entity.”
The issue, in my view, involves the scope of the Freedom of Information Law, and in this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to agency records, and §86(3) defines the term “agency” to mean:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office of other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
Based on the foregoing, the Freedom of Information Law generally applies to records maintained by governmental entities.
Second, in conjunction with §253 of the Education Law and the judicial interpretation concerning that and related provisions, I believe that a distinction may be made between a public library and an association or free association library. The former would in my view be subject to the Freedom of Information Law, while the latter would not. Subdivision (2) of §253 states that:
"The term 'public' library as used in this chapter shall be construed to mean a library, other than professional, technical or public school library, established for free purposes by official action of a municipality or district or the legislature, where the whole interests belong to the public; the term 'association' library shall be construed to mean a library established and controlled, in whole or in part, by a group of private individuals operating as an association, close corporation or as trustees under the provisions of a will or deed of trust; and the term 'free' as applied to a library shall be construed to mean a library maintained for the benefit and free use on equal terms of all the people of the community in which the library is located."
The leading decision concerning the issue was rendered by the Appellate Division in French v. Board of Education, in which the Court stated that:
"In view of the definition of a free association library contained in section 253 of the Education Law, it is clear that although such a library performs a valuable public service, it is nevertheless a private organization, and not a public corporation. (See 6 Opns St Comp, 1950, p 253.) Nor can it be described as a 'subordinate governmental agency' or a 'political subdivision'. (see 1 Opns St Comp, 1945, p 487.) It is a private corporation, chartered by the Board of Regents. (See 1961 Opns Atty Gen 105.) As such, it is not within the purview of section 101 of the General Municipal Law and we hold that under the circumstances it was proper to seek unitary bids for construction of the project as a whole. Cases and authorities cited by petitioner are inapposite, as they plainly refer to public, rather than free association libraries, and hence, in actuality, amplify the clear distinction between the two types of library organizations" [see attached, 72 AD 2d 196, 198-199 (1980); emphasis added by the court].
In my opinion, the language offered by the court clearly provides a basis for distinguishing between an association or free association library as opposed to a public library. For purposes of applying the Freedom of Information Law, I do not believe that an association library, a private non-governmental entity, would be subject to that statute; contrarily, a public library, which is established by government and "belong[s] to the public" [Education Law, §253(2)] would be subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
I recognize that the decision and associated opinions cited above were rendered some time ago. However, in view of the court’s unequivocal language, absent a new decision specifying that association or free association libraries are indeed “agencies”, it cannot be advised that those entities are “agencies” required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
Lastly, when records come into the possession of an agency, the agency in my view is required to disclose those records in accordance with the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman