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June 30, 1994

 

 

Ms. Patricia Molina
10 Marlin Road
Brewster, NY 10509

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 Ms. Molina:

I have received your letter of June 9 and the correspondence attached to it.

According to the materials, Wassaic DDSO has proposed to purchase a particular parcel in Brewster for use as a group home. You sought the "bid price" concerning the parcel and "the appraisals on which it was based" from the Facilities Development Corporation. The request was denied on the ground that the records sought are "non-final in nature." You added that a Wassaic DDSO employee has indicated, in your words, "that although the price offered was greater than would have been paid by the average buyer, it was still a 'fair' price."

You have sought advice concerning the propriety of the response and guidance pertaining to your ability to appeal. 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 (i) of the Law. In my view, two of the grounds for denial are relevant to an analysis of rights of access.

Section 87(2)(c) permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would "impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations." As it relates to the impairment of "contract awards", §87(2)(c) is, in my opinion, generally cited and applicable in two types of circumstances.

One involves a situation in which an agency is involved in the process of seeking bids or proposals concerning the purchase of goods and services. If, for example, an agency seeking bids or proposals has received a number of bids, but the deadline for their submission has not been reached, premature disclosure for the bids to another possible submitter might provide that person or firm with an unfair advantage vis a vis those who already submitted bids. Further, disclosure of the identities of bidders or the number of bidders might enable another potential bidder to tailor his bid in a manner that provides him with an unfair advantage in the bidding process. In such a situation, harm or "impairment" would likely be the result, and the records could justifiably be denied. However, after the deadline for submission of bids or proposals are available after a contract has been awarded, and that, in view of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law, "the successful bidder had no reasonable expectation of not having its bid open to the public" [Contracting Plumbers Cooperative Restoration Corp. v. Ameruso, 105 Misc. 2d 951, 430 NYS 2d 196, 198 (1980)].

The other situation in which §87(2)(c) has successfully been asserted to withhold records pertains to real property transactions where appraisals in possession of an agency were requested prior to the consummation of a transaction. Again, when premature disclosure would have enabled the public to know the prices the agency sought, thereby potentially precluding the agency from receiving an optimal price, an agency's denial was upheld [see Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency, 56 NY 2d 888 (1982)].

In both of the kinds of the situations described above, there is an inequality of knowledge. More specifically, in the bid situation, the person who seeks bids prior to the deadline for their submission is presumably unaware of the content of the bids that have already been submitted; in the appraisal situation, the person seeking that record is unfamiliar with its contents. As suggested above, premature disclosure of bids would enable a potential bidder to gain knowledge in a manner unfair to other bidders and possibly to the detriment of an agency and, therefore, the public. Disclosure of an appraisal would provide knowledge to the recipient that might effectively prevent an agency from engaging in an agreement that is most beneficial to taxpayers.

When there is no inequality of knowledge between or among the parties to negotiations, or if records have been shared or exchanged by the parties, it is questionable and difficult to envision how disclosure would "impair present or imminent contract awards", (see Community Board 7 of Borough of Manhattan v. Schaffer, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, March 20, 1991). Further, if an agreement has been reached or a lease or contract has been signed, presumably negotiations have ended, and any impairment that might have existed prior to the consummation of an agreement would essentially have disappeared.

Also of potential relevance is §87(2)(g), which pertains to the authority to withhold "inter-agency or intra-agency materials." If an appraisal or survey is prepared by agency officials, it could be characterized as "intra-agency material." Further, the Court of Appeals has held that appraisals and other reports prepared by consultants retained by agencies may also be considered as intra-agency materials subject to the provisions of §87(2)(g) [see Xerox Corporation v. Town of Webster, 65 NY 2d 131 (1985)].

More specifically, §87(2)(g) states that an agency may 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 has been held that factual information appearing in narrative form, as well as those portions appearing in numerical or tabular form, is available under §87(2)(g)(i). For instance, in Ingram v. Axelrod, the Appellate Division held that:

"Respondent, while admitting that the report contains factual data, contends that such data is so intertwined with subject analysis and opinion as to make the entire report exempt. After reviewing the report in camera and applying to it the above statutory and regulatory criteria, we find that Special Term correctly held pages 3-5 ('Chronology of Events' and 'Analysis of the Records') to be disclosable. These pages are clearly a 'collection of statements of objective information logically arranged and reflecting objective reality'. (10 NYCRR 50.2[b]). Additionally, pages 7-11 (ambulance records, list of interviews) should be disclosed as 'factual data'. They also contain factual information upon which the agency relies (Matter of Miracle Mile Assoc. v. Yudelson, 68 A2d 176, 181 mot for lve to app den 48 NY2d 706). Respondents erroneously claim that an agency record necessarily is exempt if both factual data and opinion are intertwined in it; we have held that '[t]he mere fact that some of the data might be an estimate or a recommendation does not convert it into an expression of opinion' (Matter of Polansky v. Regan, 81 AD2d 102, 104; emphasis added). Regardless, in the instant situation, we find these pages to be strictly factual and thus clearly disclosable" [90 AD 2d 568, 569 (1982)].

Similarly, the Court of Appeals has specified that the contents of intra-agency materials determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:

"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[2][g][i], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" (id. at 133).

In short, even though statistical or factual information may be "intertwined" with opinions, the statistical or factual portions, if any, as well as any policy or determinations, would be available, unless a different ground for denial [i.e., §87(2)(c)] could properly be asserted. In the context of your request, if an appraisal includes reference to comparable properties and their assessed value, that kind of material would, in my view, consist of statistical or factual information.

Second, when a request for records is denied, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. To reiterate commentary offered earlier, that provision 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 of the entity, or the person therefor designated by such 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."

Further, the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401), which govern the procedural aspects of the Law, state that:

"(a) The governing body of a public corporation or the head, chief executive or governing body of other agencies shall hear appeals or shall designate a person or body to hear appeals regarding denial of access to records under the Freedom of Information Law.

(b) Denial of access shall be in writing stating the reason therefor and advising the person denied access of his or her right to appeal to the person or body established to hear appeals, and that person or body shall be identified by name, title, business address and business telephone number. The records access officer shall not be the appeals officer" (section 1401.7).

It is also noted that the state's highest court has held that a failure to inform a person denied access to records of the right to appeal enables that person to seek judicial review of a denial. Citing the Committee's regulations and the Freedom of Information Law, the Court of Appeals in Barrett v. Morgenthau held that:

"[i]nasmuch as the District Attorney failed to advise petitioner of the availability of an administrative appeal in the office (see, 21 NYCRR 1401.7[b]) and failed to demonstrate in the proceeding that the procedures for such an appeal had, in fact, even been established (see, Public Officers Law [section] 87[1][b], he cannot be heard to complain that petitioner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies" [74 NY 2d 907, 909 (1989)].

Therefore, when a request is denied, the person issuing the denial is required to inform a person denied access of the right to appeal as well as the name and address of the person or body to whom an appeal may be directed. I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Mauro J. Lapetina, Counsel