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August 7, 1996

 

 

Ms. Estelle Levy
150 West 96th Street - 14G
New York, NY 10025

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. Levy:

I have received your letter of August 2. Your question involves the status of the City Parks Foundation under the Freedom of Information Law.

According to your letter, the Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation which, among other functions, operates tennis concessions at New York City parks. You wrote that "[i]t is housed in the Arsenal where the Commissioner and Parks Counsel have offices...needs Commissioner approval for disbursements, it pays no rent, uses City owned offices equipment and electricity", and that "[a]t the Central Park Tennis Concession, there are New York City Parks Dept paid employees", some of whom "are tenured Parks workers and others provisional/seasonal -- all paid by public funds without whom they could not operate the concession."

From my perspective, assuming the accuracy of your statements, it would appear that the Foundation is subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

As you may be aware, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to agency records, and §86(3) of that statute 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 is generally applicable to entities of state and local government. Nevertheless, there are several judicial decisions in which it has been held that certain not-for-profit corporations are "agencies" due to the nature of their relationship or connection with government.

In a case that involved what may be characterized as an adjunct of a public institution of higher education, it was held that a community college foundation, a not-for-profit corporation, and its records are subject to the Freedom of Information Law. As stated by the court:

"At issue is whether the Kingsborough Community College Foundation, Inc (hereinafter 'Foundation') comes within the definition of an 'agency' as defined in Public Officers Law §86(3) and whether the Foundation's fund collection and expenditure records are 'records' within the meaning and contemplation of Public Officers Law §86(4).

The Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that was formed to 'promote interest in and support of the college in the local community and among students, faculty and alumni of the college' (Respondent's Vertified Answer at paragraph 17). These purposes are further amplified in the statement of 'principal objectives' in the Foundation's Certificate of Incorporation:

'1 To promote and encourage among members of the local and college community and alumni or interest in and support of Kingsborough Community College and the various educational, cultural and social activities conducted by it and serve as a medium for encouraging fuller understanding of the aims and functions of the college'.

Furthermore, the Board of Trustees of the City University, by resolution, authorized the formation of the Foundation. The activities of the Foundation, enumerated in the Verified Petition at paragraph 11, amply demonstrate that the Foundation is providing services that are exclusively in the college's interest and essentially in the name of the College. Indeed, the Foundation would not exist but for its relationship with the College" (Eisenberg v. Goldstein, Supreme Court, Kings County, February 26, 1988).

As in the case of the Foundation in Eisenberg, the Central Park Foundation would apparently not exist but for its relationship with the Department of Parks and Recreation.

In Westchester-Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball [50 NY2d 575 (1980)], a case involving access to records relating to a lottery conducted by a volunteer fire company, the Court of Appeals found that volunteer fire companies, despite their status as not-for-profit corporations, are "agencies" subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In so holding, the Court stated that:

"We begin by rejecting respondent's contention that, in applying the Freedom of Information Law, a distinction is to be made between a volunteer organization on which a local government relies for performance of an essential public service, as is true of the fire department here, and on the other hand, an organic arm of government, when that is the channel through which such services are delivered. Key is the Legislature's own unmistakably broad declaration that, '[a]s state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' (emphasis added; Public Officers Law, §84).

For the successful implementation of the policies motivating the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such objections cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit" (id. at 579].

Most recently, the Court of Appeals again determined that a certain not-for-profit corporation constituted an "agency" subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In Buffalo News v. Buffalo Enterprise Development Corporation [84 NY 2d 488 (1994)], the Court determined that:

"The BEDC, a not-for-profit local development corporation, channels public funds into the community and enjoys many attributes of public entities. It should therefore be deemed an 'agency' within FOIL's reach in this case" (id., 492).

It was also stated that:

"The BEDC principally pegs its argument for nondisclosure on the feature that an entity qualifies as an 'agency' only if there is substantial governmental control over its daily operations...The Buffalo News counters by arguing that the City of Buffalo is 'inextricably involved in the core planning and execution of the agency's [BEDC] program'; thus, the BEDC is a 'governmental entity' performing a governmental function for the City of Buffalo, within the statutory definition.

"The BEDC's purpose is undeniably governmental. It was created exclusively by and for the City of Buffalo to attract investment and stimulate growth in Buffalo's downtown and neighborhoods. As a city development agency, it is required to publicly disclose its annual budget. The budget is subject to a public hearing and is submitted with its annual audited financial statements to the City of Buffalo for review. Moreover, the BEDC describes itself in its financial reports and public brochure as an 'agent' of the City of Buffalo. In sum, the constricted construction urged by appellant BEDC would contradict the expansive public policy dictates underpinning FOIL. Thus, we reject appellant's arguments" (id., 492-493).

In the context of the situation that you described, there would also appear to be substantial government control over the Foundation if indeed the Foundation must obtain approval from the Commissioner before making disbursements. Further, in view of the location of the Foundation's offices and the overlap in the performance of its functions with those the Department, the relationship between the Foundation and the Department appears to be similar in many respects to that of the BEDC and the City of Buffalo in Buffalo News.

Even if it is contended that the Foundation is not an agency, its records are maintained in Parks Department premises, and it appears that its records are kept or produced for or on behalf of the Department. Here I point out that §86(4) of the Freedom of Information Law defines the term "record" expansively to mean:

"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".

The Court of Appeals has construed the definition as broadly as its specific language suggests. The first such decision that dealt squarely with the scope of the term "record" involved a case cited earlier concerning documents pertaining to a lottery sponsored by a fire department. Although the agency contended that the documents did not pertain to the performance of its official duties, i.e., fighting fires, but rather to a "nongovernmental" activity, the Court rejected the claim of a "governmental versus nongovernmental dichotomy" (see Westchester Rockland, supra, 581) and found that the documents constituted "records" subject to rights of access granted by the Law. Moreover, the Court determined that:

"The statutory definition of 'record' makes nothing turn on the purpose for which it relates. This conclusion accords with the spirit as well as the letter of the statute. For not only are the expanding boundaries of governmental activity increasingly difficult to draw, but in perception, if not in actuality, there is bound to be considerable crossover between governmental and nongovernmental activities, especially where both are carried on by the same person or persons" (id.).

The point made in the final sentence of the passage quoted above appears to be especially relevant, for there appears to be "considerable crossover" in the activities of the Foundation and the Department.

Most recently, the Court of Appeals found that materials received by a corporation providing services for a branch of the State University that were kept on behalf of the University constituted "records" falling with the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. I point out that the Court rejected "SUNY's contention that disclosure turns on whether the requested information is in the physical possession of the agency", for such a view "ignores the plain language of the FOIL definition of 'records' as information kept or held 'by, with or for an agency'" [see Encore College Bookstores, Inc. v. Auxiliary Services Corporation of the State University of New York at Farmingdale, 87 NY 2d 410, (1995)]. Therefore, if a document is produced for an agency, it constitutes an agency record, even if it is not in the physical possession of the agency.

Lastly, since you indicated that the Department failed to respond to your requests, I point out that the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:

"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."

If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. 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, 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."

In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].

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)].

As such, an agency's records access officer has the duty individually, or in that person's role of coordinating the response to a request, 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 assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: Deborah Landau
Thomas G. Rozinski
Parke Spencer