December 11, 1996
Ms. Lucille Held
83 Pleasant Ridge Road
Harrison, NY 10528
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. Held:
I have received your recent letter in which you raised an issue relating to the implementation of the Freedom of Information Law by the Town of Harrison.
You referred to a situation in which a town, by statute, is required to maintain, an ongoing basis, certain records concerning its accounts. Nevertheless, disclosure of those kinds of records has been delayed, and it appears that, as a matter of practice, the Town delays granting or denying all requests in the same manner, irrespective of the nature of the record sought.
In this regard, 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..."
While an agency must grant access to records, deny access or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days, when such acknowledgement is given, there is no precise time period within which an agency must grant or deny access to records. The time needed to do so may be dependent upon the volume of a request, the possibility that other requests have been made, the necessity to conduct legal research, the search and retrieval techniques used to locate the records and the like. In short, when an agency acknowledges the receipt of a request because more than five business days may be needed to grant or deny a request, so long as it provides an approximate date indicating when the request will be granted or denied, and that date is reasonable in view of the attendant circumstances, I believe that the agency would be acting in compliance with law.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, in my view, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, if records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals has asserted:
"...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 objectives 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" [Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].
Further, in my opinion, if, as a matter of practice or policy, an agency acknowledges the receipt of requests and indicates in every instance that it will determine to grant or deny access to records "within thirty days" or some other particular period, following the date of acknowledgement, such a practice or policy would be contrary to the thrust of the Freedom of Information Law. If a request is voluminous and a significant amount of time is needed to locate records and review them to determine rights of access, thirty days, in view of those and perhaps the other kinds of factors mentioned earlier, might be reasonable. On the other hand, if a record or report is clearly public and can be found easily, there would appear to be no rational basis for delaying disclosure for as much as thirty days. In a case in which it was found that an agency's "actions demonstrate an utter disregard for compliance set by FOIL", it was held that "[t]he records finally produced were not so voluminous as to justify any extension of time, much less an extension beyond that allowed by statute, or no response to appeals at all" (Inner City Press/Community on the Move, Inc. v. New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Supreme Court, New York County, November 9, 1993).
In an effort to enhance compliance with understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to Town Officials.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Norma Ponce, Town Clerk