May 15, 1995
Hon. Anne Hiller
Town of Esopus
P.O. Box 700
Port Ewen, NY 12466
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 Ms. Hiller:
I have received your letter of March 31, as well as the correspondence attached to it.
You referred to a proceeding conducted by the Town Board for which you prepared a transcript and added that, during the proceeding, "documents as evidence were given to the court reporter to mark as exhibits and as of this date the Town Board has not filed these documents with [you] and therefore are not available for public inspection."
Since you sought my views on the matter, I offer the following comments.
First, §30 of the Town Law states in part that the town clerk: "Shall have the custody of all the records, books and papers of the town". Therefore, even though a person other than yourself may have physical possession of the records in question, as Town Clerk, I believe that you have legal custody of the records.
Second, it is noted that §89(1)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law requires the Committee on Open Government to promulgate regulations concerning the procedural aspects of the Law (see 21 NYCRR Part 1401). In turn, §87(1)(a) of the Law states that:
"the governing body of each public corporation shall promulgate uniform rules and regulations for all agencies in such public corporation 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 administration of this article."
In this instance, the governing body of a public corporation, the Town Board, is required to promulgate appropriate rules and regulations consistent with those adopted by the Committee on Open Government and with the Freedom of Information Law.
The initial responsibility to deal with requests is borne by an agency's records access officer, and the Committee's regulations provide direction concerning the designation and duties of a records access officer. Specifically, §1401.2 of the regulations provides in relevant part that:
"(a) The governing body of a public corporation and the head of an executive agency or governing body of other agencies shall be responsible for insuring compliance with the regulations herein, and shall designate one or more persons as records access officer by name or by specific job title and business address, who shall have the duty of coordinating agency response to public requests for access to records. The designation of one or more records access officers shall not be construed to prohibit officials who have in the past been authorized to make records or information available to the public from continuing to do so."
As such, the Town Board has the ability to designate "one or more persons as records access officer". Further, §1401.2(b) of the regulations describes the duties of a records access officer, including the duty to coordinate the agency's response to requests. If you have been designated records access officer, I believe that you have the authority to make initial determinations to grant or deny access to records in response to requests made under the Freedom of Information Law.
Lastly, and in a related area, the "Local Government Records Law", Article 57-A of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, deals with the management, custody, retention and disposal of records by local governments.
With respect to the retention of records, §57.25 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law states in relevant part that:
"1. It shall be the responsibility of every local officer to maintain records to adequately document the transaction of public business and the services and programs for which such officer is responsible; to retain and have custody of such records for so long as the records are needed for the conduct of the business of the office; to adequately protect such records; to cooperate with the local government's records management officer on programs for the orderly and efficient management of records including identification and management of inactive records and identification and preservation of records of enduring value; to dispose of records in accordance with legal requirements; and to pass on to his successor records needed for the continuing conduct of business of the office..."
While a person other than you may have physical possession of the records in question, I do not believe that that person has legal custody of them. As indicated earlier, §30 of the Town Law specifies that the town clerk is the custodian of town records. Consistent with that provision is §57.19 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, which states in part that a town clerk is the "records management officer" for a town.
A failure to share records or to inform the clerk of their existence may effectively preclude the clerk from carrying out her duties as records management officer, or as records access officer for purposes of responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Law. In short, if the records access officer does not know of the existence or location of Town records, that person may not have the ability to grant or deny access to records in a manner consistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman