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December 20, 1996

 

 

Mr. Ralph Neama
1285 Montauk Highway
Copiague, NY 11726

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 Mr. Neama:

As you are aware, I have received your letter of November 8. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.

Attached to your letter is a copy of the "Resource Recovery Facility Operations Monitoring Report" that was, as indicated on the cover of the report, "prepared for" the Town of Babylon by a professional engineer. You wrote that the Town has claimed that the report is "confidential", and you asked that I review the report and offer advice concerning public rights of access to its contents.

In this regard, it is emphasized that the ensuing comments should be considered wholly advisory. It is rare that the Committee or its staff reviews a record that is the subject of a request; only a court has the power to determine rights of access via a private or in camera inspection of records. Having read the report, from my perspective, although portions could justifiably be withheld, the great majority would be accessible under the Freedom of Information Law in conjunction with the following analysis.

First, based on judicial decisions, an assertion or claim of confidentiality, unless it is based upon a statute, is likely meaningless. When confidentiality is conferred by a statute, an act of the State Legislature or Congress, records fall outside the scope of rights of access pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, which, again, states that an agency may withhold records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute". If there is no statute upon which an agency can rely to characterize records as "confidential" or "exempted from disclosure", the records are subject to whatever rights of access exist under the Freedom of Information Law [see Doolan v.BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341 (1979); Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557 (1984); Gannett News Service, Inc. v. State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, 415 NYS 2d 780 (1979)]. As such, an assertion of confidentiality without more, would not in my view serve to enable an agency to withhold a record.

Second, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to agency records. Section 86(4) of that statute defines the term "record" expansively to include:

"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 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 Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581 (1980)] 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.).

In a decision involving records prepared by corporate boards furnished voluntarily to a state agency, the Court of Appeals reversed a finding that the documents were not "records," thereby rejecting a claim that the documents "were the private property of the intervenors, voluntarily put in the respondents' 'custody' for convenience under a promise of confidentiality" (Washington Post, supra, 564). Once again, the Court relied upon the definition of "record" and reiterated that the purpose for which a document was prepared or the function to which it relates are irrelevant. Moreover, the decision indicated that "When the plain language of the statute is precise and unambiguous, it is determinative" (id. at 565).

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, as in the case of a report "prepared for" the Town by an engineer or firm, it constitutes an agency record, even if it is not in the physical possession of the agency.

Third, 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.

It is assumed that the report in question was prepared by a person or firm retained as a consultant. Based upon the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, records prepared for an agency by a consultant may be treated as "intra-agency" materials that fall within the scope of §87(2)(g). That provision permits an agency to 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.

In a discussion of the issue of consultant reports, the Court of Appeals stated that:

"Opinions and recommendations prepared by agency personnel may be exempt from disclosure under FOIL as 'predecisional materials, prepared to assist an agency decision maker***in arriving at his decision' (McAulay v. Board of Educ., 61 AD 2d 1048, aff'd 48 NY 2d 659). Such material is exempt 'to protect the deliberative process of government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role would be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers (Matter of Sea Crest Const. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD 2d 546, 549).

"In connection with their deliberative process, agencies may at times require opinions and recommendations from outside consultants. It would make little sense to protect the deliberative process when such reports are prepared by agency employees yet deny this protection when reports are prepared for the same purpose by outside consultants retained by agencies. Accordingly, we hold that records may be considered 'intra-agency material' even though prepared by an outside consultant at the behest of an agency as part of the agency's deliberative process (see, Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD 2d 546, 549, supra; Matter of 124 Ferry St. Realty Corp. v. Hennessy, 82 AD 2d 981, 983)" [Xerox Corporation v. Town of Webster, 65 NY 2d 131, 132-133 (1985)].

Based upon the foregoing, a report prepared by a consultant for an agency may be withheld or must be disclosed based upon the same standards as in cases in which records are prepared by the staff of an agency. It is emphasized that the Court in Xerox specified that the contents of intra-agency materials determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:

"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials,' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[2][g][i], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" (id. at 133).

Therefore, a record prepared by a consultant for an agency would be accessible or deniable, in whole or in part, depending on its contents.

It has also been held that factual information appearing in narrative form, as well as those portions appearing in numerical or tabular form, is available under §87(2)(g)(i). For instance, in Ingram v. Axelrod, the Appellate Division held that:

"Respondent, while admitting that the report contains factual data, contends that such data is so intertwined with subject analysis and opinion as to make the entire report exempt. After reviewing the report in camera and applying to it the above statutory and regulatory criteria, we find that Special Term correctly held pages 3-5 ('Chronology of Events' and 'Analysis of the Records') to be disclosable. These pages are clearly a 'collection of statements of objective information logically arranged and reflecting objective reality'. (10 NYCRR 50.2[b]). Additionally, pages 7-11 (ambulance records, list of interviews) should be disclosed as 'factual data'. They also contain factual information upon which the agency relies (Matter of Miracle Mile Assoc. v Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181 mot for lve to app den 48 NY2d 706). Respondents erroneously claim that an agency record necessarily is exempt if both factual data and opinion are intertwined in it; we have held that '[t]he mere fact that some of the data might be an estimate or a recommendation does not convert it into an expression of opinion' (Matter of Polansky v Regan, 81 AD2d 102, 104; emphasis added). Regardless, in the instant situation, we find these pages to be strictly factual and thus clearly disclosable" [90 AD 2d 568, 569 (1982)].

In short, even though statistical or factual information may be "intertwined" with opinions, the statistical or factual portions, if any, as well as any policy or determinations, would be available, unless a different ground for denial could properly be asserted.

Some aspects of the report consist of opinions and, therefore, could in my view be withheld. For example, on page I-3, certain functions are characterized as "good" or that they "operated well"; near the end of the report (page VI-6), opinions and advice are offered by characterizing a function as "satisfactory" or by stating that a problem "should be resolved." The great majority of the remainder of the report consists of "statistical or factual tabulations or data", which I believe would be accessible to the public under §87(2)(g)(i) of the Freedom of Information Law.

I hope that the foregoing serves to enhance your understanding of the Freedom of Information Law and that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Town Board
Records Access Officer