Mr. Richard A. French
Building Department Coordinator
Town of North Greenbush
2 Douglas Street
Wynantskill, NY 12198-7561
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.
Dear Mr. French:
I have received your letter of October 7 in which you raised questions concerning the Freedom of Information Law and the fees that can be charged pursuant to that statute.
According to your letter, in 1992 Rensselaer County began to gather data needed to implement E911 telephone service, and the County Bureau of Emergency Services served as the "lead agency" in gathering and analyzing data. Many other agencies were involved, including your Department, and you wrote that the Town expended "over 200 man-hours" in assisting in the project.
Since the Department can use the data, much of which you supplied, you have requested a copy of the "computer digitized map." The Bureau of Emergency Services has indicated that the fee will be $750, even though the information sought "will fit on a single computer diskette." You have questioned the propriety of the fee.
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. From my perspective, none of the grounds for denial would be applicable, for the data in question has long been available to the public from other sources.
Second, by way of background, I point out that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records. Section 89(3) of the Law states in part that an agency need not create a record in response to a request. It is emphasized, however, that §86(4) of the Freedom of Information Law 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."
Based upon the language quoted above, if information is maintained in some physical form, it would in my opinion constitute a "record" subject to rights of access conferred by the Law. Further, the definition of "record" includes specific reference to computer tapes and discs, and it was held more than ten years ago that "[i]nformation is increasingly being stored in computers and access to such data should not be restricted merely because it is not in printed form" [Babigian v. Evans, 427 NYS 2d 688, 691 (1980); aff'd 97 AD 2d 992 (1983); see also, Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)].
When information is maintained electronically, in a computer, for example, it has been advised that if the information sought is available under the Freedom of Information Law and may be retrieved by means of existing computer programs, an agency is required to disclose the information. In that kind of situation, the agency in my view would merely be retrieving data that it has the capacity to retrieve. Disclosure may be accomplished either by printing out the data on paper or perhaps by duplicating the data on another storage mechanism, such as a computer tape or disk. On the other hand, if information sought can be retrieved from a computer or other storage medium only by means of new programming or the alteration of existing programs, those steps would, in my opinion, be the equivalent of creating a new record. As stated earlier, since §89(3) does not require an agency to create a record, I do not believe that an agency would be required to reprogram or develop new programs to retrieve information that would otherwise be available [see Guerrier v. Hernandez-Cuebas, 165 AD 2d 218 (1991)].
In Brownstone Publishers Inc. v. New York City Department of Buildings, the question involved an agency's obligation to transfer electronic information from one electronic storage medium to another when it had the technical capacity to do so and when the applicant was willing to pay the actual cost of the transfer. As stated by the Appellate Division, First Department:
"The files are maintained in a computer format that Brownstone can employ directly into its system, which can be reproduced on computer tapes at minimal cost in a few hours time-a cost Brownstone agreed to assume (see, POL [section] 87 [b] [iii]). The DOB, apparently intending to discourage this and similar requests, agreed to provide the information only in hard copy, i.e., printed out on over a million sheets of paper, at a cost of $10,000 for the paper alone, which would take five or six weeks to complete. Brownstone would then have to reconvert the data into computer-usable form at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Public Officers Law [section] 87(2) provides that, 'Each agency shall...make available for public inspection and copying all records...' Section 86(4) includes in its definition of 'record', computer tapes or discs. The policy underlying the FOIL is 'to insure maximum public access to government records' (Matter of Scott, Sardano & Pomerantz v. Records Access Officer, 65 N.Y.2d 294, 296-297, 491 N.Y.S.2d 289, 480 N.E.2d 1071). Under the circumstances presented herein, it is clear that both the statute and its underlying policy require that the DOB comply with Brownstone's reasonable request to have the information, presently maintained in computer language, transferred onto computer tapes" [166 Ad 2d, 294, 295 (1990)].
Further, in a more recent decision that cited Brownstone, it was held that: "[a]n agency which maintains in a computer format information sought by a F.O.I.L. request may be compelled to comply with the request to transfer information to computer disks or tape" (Samuel v. Mace, Supreme Court, Monroe County, December 11, 1992).
With respect to fees, §87(1)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law stated until October 15, 1982, that an agency could charge up to twenty-five cents per photocopy or the actual cost of reproduction unless a different fee was prescribed by "law". Chapter 73 of the Laws of 1982 replaced the word "law" with the term "statute". As described in the Committee's fourth annual report to the Governor and the Legislature of the Freedom of Information Law, which was submitted in December of 1981 and which recommended the amendment that is now law:
"The problem is that the term 'law' may include regulations, local laws, or ordinances, for example. As such, state agencies by means of regulation or municipalities by means of local law may and in some instances have established fees in excess of twenty-five cents per photocopy, thereby resulting in constructive denials of access. To remove this problem, the word 'law' should be replaced by 'statute', thereby enabling an agency to charge more than twenty-five cents only in situations in which an act of the State Legislature, a statute, so specifies."
Therefore, prior to October 15, 1982, a local law, an ordinance, or a regulation for instance, establishing a search fee or a fee in excess of twenty-five cents per photocopy or higher than the actual cost of reproduction was valid. However, under the amendment, only an act of the State Legislature, a statute, would in my view permit the assessment of a fee higher than twenty-five cents per photocopy, a fee that exceeds the actual cost of reproducing records that cannot be photocopied, (i.e., electronic information), or any other fee, such as a fee for search or overhead costs. In addition, it has been confirmed judicially that fees inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law may be validly charged only when the authority to do so is conferred by a statute [see Sheehan v. City of Syracuse, 521 NYS 2d 207 (1987)].
Further, the specific language of the Freedom of Information Law and the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government indicate that, absent statutory authority, an agency may charge fees only for the reproduction of records. Section 87(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law states:
"Each agency shall promulgate rules and regulations in conformance with this article...and pursuant to such general rules and regulations as may be promulgated by the committee on open government in conformity with the provisions of this article, pertaining to the availability of records and procedures to be followed, including, but not limited to...
(iii) the fees for copies of records which shall not exceed twenty-five cents per photocopy not in excess of nine by fourteen inches, or the actual cost of reproducing any other record, except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute."
The regulations promulgated by the Committee state in relevant part that:
"Except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute:
(a) There shall be no fee charged for the following: (1) inspection of records; (2) search for records; or (3) any certification pursuant to this Part" (21 NYCRR 1401.8)."
Based upon the foregoing, it is likely that a fee for reproducing electronic information would involve the cost of computer time, plus the cost of an information storage medium (i.e., a computer tape or disk) to which data is transferred.
Although compliance with the Freedom of Information Law involves the use of public employees' time and perhaps other costs, the Court of Appeals has found that the Law is not intended to be given effect "on a cost-accounting basis", but rather that "Meeting the public's legitimate right of access to information concerning government is fulfillment of a governmental obligation, not the gift of, or waste of, public funds" [Doolan v. BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341, 347 (1979)].
In short, the fee sought to be charged by the County appears to be excessive and inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law and its judicial interpretation.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to the Bureau of Emergency Services.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Bureau of Emergency Services