May 24, 1995
Ms. Rita A. Liggio
Brewster Public Library
79 Main Street
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 information presented in your correspondence.
Dear Ms. Liggio:
I have received your letter of April 24, which reached this office on May 1. As you requested, enclosed are copies of the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law.
In conjunction with your questions, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law applies 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 or 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 applies to entities of state and local government. If a library is a governmental entity, I believe that it would be required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
In terms of the duty of disclose records, 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.
While most library records, including bills, must be disclosed, I point out that a statute dealing directly with records pertaining to library users requires that those records be confidential. Specifically, §4509 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules states that:
"Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute."
You questioned the "standard procedure in paying bills, or withholding payment of bills." Although I would like to offer a response, the question falls beyond the jurisdiction of the Committee. It is suggested that you confer with your fiscal officer or perhaps an auditor, or that you contact the Office of the State Comptroller. Lastly, you asked whether residents have the right to ask questions during open meetings of the Library's Board of Trustees. Although the Open Meetings Law clearly provides the public with the right "to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy" (see Open Meetings Law, §100), the Law is silent with respect to the issue of public participation. Consequently, by means of example, if a public body does not want to answer questions or permit the public to speak or otherwise participate at its meetings, I do not believe that it would be obliged to do so. On the other hand, a public body may choose to answer questions and permit public participation, and many do so. When a public body does permit the public to speak, I believe that it should do so based upon reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.
While public bodies have the right to adopt rules to govern their own proceedings, the courts have found in a variety of contexts that such rules must be reasonable. For example, although a board of education may "adopt by laws and rules for its government and operations", in a case in which a board's rule prohibited the use of tape recorders at its meetings, the Appellate Division found that the rule was unreasonable, stating that the authority to adopt rules "is not unbridled" and that "unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned" [see Mitchell v. Garden City Union Free School District, 113 AD 2d 924, 925 (1985)]. Similarly, if by rule, a public body chose to permit certain citizens to address it for ten minutes while permitting others to address it for three, or not at all, such a rule, in my view, would be unreasonable.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman