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March 8, 1996

 

 

Ms. Claude Phillips
69 Mt. Pleasant Avenue
Troy, NY 12180

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. Phillips:

I have received your letter of February 20 and the materials attached to it. In your capacity as a member of the Board of Education of the Enlarged City School District of Troy, you have asked whether, in my view, you have "broken any rules, regulations, guidelines, etc. by releasing this material [certain documentation that you attached] to parents and PTA/PTO leaders." You expressed the opinion that your "position as Board member prevents and precludes [you] from releasing information received from executive sessions or information received as confidential", but that "[n]one of the enclosed memoranda fall under those categories."

In this regard, first, the Committee on Open Government is not a court and I am not a judge. Although I have reviewed the documents that you enclosed, I cannot make a judgment or determination. I believe, however, that with the exception of a few statements reflective of opinions, the memoranda would be available to any person in response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Law.

Second, I am unfamiliar with the rules that might have been adopted by the Board of Education, and I cannot conjecture as to whether you may have complied with or broken any such rules. For instance, I am unaware of the existence of any Board rule or policy that might deal with unilateral disclosures by Board members or ethical guidelines relating to disclosure by Board members. While I cannot advise that the disclosures in question were ethical or unethical, I do not believe that any statute would have prohibited you from disclosing the records.

According to your letter, some of the information contained in the records was reviewed and discussed at meetings of the PTA/PTO and the Shared Decision Making Committee. Assuming that PTA/PTO meetings are held on school grounds, any member of the public would have the right to attend [see Education Law, §414(1)(c)]. Similarly, it has been advised that shared decision making committees established pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Commissioner of Education constitute "public bodies" required to conduct their meetings in accordance with the Open Meetings Law (see attached advisory opinion, OML-2456). Therefore, insofar as the contents of the documentation at issue were effectively disclosed at meetings open to the public, I do not believe that there would be any basis for withholding.

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.

The records, as you suggested, consist of intra-agency materials that fall within the coverage of §87(2)(g). That provision 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.

From my perspective, the records in question consist in great measure of factual information, expressions of agency policy or direction given to staff. To that extent, I believe that they would be accessible under subparagraphs (i), (ii) or (iii) of §87(2)(g). As suggested earlier, minor portions might be characterized as opinions that the District could choose to withhold.

You also referred to objections concerning the protection of personal privacy. The issue, in my view, is whether disclosure of the information sought would constituted an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy pursuant to §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law. Although subjective judgments must often of necessity be made when questions concerning privacy arise, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. It is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee's official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977].

As I understand the documentation, references to names involve public employees in relation to the performance of their official duties. If that is so, it would appear that disclosure would not have resulted in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Lastly, both the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law are permissive. While the Open Meetings Law authorizes public bodies to conduct executive sessions in circumstances described in paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1), there is no requirement that an executive session be held even though a public body has right to do so. Further, the introductory language of §105(1), which prescribes a procedure that must be accomplished before an executive session may be held, clearly indicates that a public body "may" conduct an executive session only after having completed that procedure. If, for example, a motion is made to conduct an executive session for a valid reason, and the motion is not carried, the public body could either discuss the issue in public, or table the matter for discussion in the future. Similarly, although the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records in accordance with the grounds for denial, it has been held by the Court of Appeals that the exceptions are permissive rather than mandatory, and that an agency may choose to disclose records even though the authority to withhold exists [Capital Newspapers v. Burns], 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)].

I am unaware of any statute that would prohibit a Board member from disclosing the kinds of information at issue. Further, even when information might have been obtained during an executive session properly held or from records marked "confidential", I note that the term "confidential" in my view has a narrow and precise technical meaning. For records or information to be validly characterized as confidential, I believe that such a claim must be based upon a statute that specifically confers or requires confidentiality.

For instance, if a discussion by a board of education concerns a record pertaining to a particular student (i.e., in the case of consideration of disciplinary action, an educational program, an award, etc.), the discussion would have to occur in private and the record would have to be withheld insofar as public discussion or disclosure would identify the student. As you may be aware, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC §1232g) generally prohibits an educational agency from disclosing education records or information derived from those records that are identifiable to a student, unless the parents of the student consent to disclosure. In the context of the Open Meetings Law, a discussion concerning a student would constitute a matter made confidential by federal law and would be exempted from the coverage of that statute [see Open Meetings Law, §108(3)]. In the context of the Freedom of Information Law, an education record would be specifically exempted from disclosure by statute in accordance with §87(2)(a). In both contexts, I believe that a board of education, its members and school district employees would be prohibited from disclosing, because a statute requires confidentiality. Again, however, no statute of which I am aware would confer or require confidentiality with respect to the matters described in your correspondence.

In a case in which the issue was whether discussions occurring during an executive session held by a school board could be considered "privileged", it was held that "there is no statutory provision that describes the matter dealt with at such a session as confidential or which in any way restricts the participants from disclosing what took place" (Runyon v. Board of Edcuation, West Hempstead Union Free School District No. 27, Supreme Court, Nassau County, January 29, 1987).

While there may be no prohibition against disclosure of the information acquired during executive sessions or records that could be withheld, the foregoing is not intended to suggest such disclosures would be uniformly appropriate or ethical. Obviously, the purpose of an executive session is to enable members of public bodies to deliberate, to speak freely and to develop strategies in situations in which some degree of secrecy is permitted. Similarly, the grounds for withholding records under the Freedom of Information Law relate in most instances to the ability to prevent some sort of harm. In both cases, inappropriate disclosures could work against the interests of a public body as a whole and the public generally. Further, a unilateral disclosure by a member of a public body might serve to defeat or circumvent the principles under which those bodies are intended to operate. Historically, I believe that public bodies were created to order to reach collective determinations, determinations that better reflect various points of view within a community than a single decision maker could reach alone. Members of boards should not in my opinion be unanimous in every instance; on the contrary, they should represent disparate points of view which, when conveyed as part of a deliberative process, lead to fair and representative decision making. Nevertheless, notwithstanding distinctions in points of view, the decision or consensus by the majority of a public body should in my opinion be recognized and honored by those members who may dissent. Disclosure made contrary to or in the absence of consent by the majority could result in unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, impairment of collective bargaining negotiations or even interference with criminal or other investigations. In those kinds of situations, even though there may be no statute that prohibits disclosure, release of information could be damaging to individuals and the functioning of government.

I hope that I have been of some assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: Board of Education