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February 3, 1997

 

 

 

 

Mr. Ralph Cessario
First Deputy Town Attorney
Town of Amherst
5583 Main Street
Williamsville, NY 14221

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. Cessario:

I have received your letter of January 6. You asked whether the Erie County Water Authority sent a copy of an appeal by the Town of Amherst of October 30 to this office as required by §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, and if it did not do so, you asked that I offer my "position" concerning the "validity" of your request.

The substance of the matter involves a request by the Town for the water readings pertaining to the Authority's customers residing in the Town, and for "all Geographic Information System (GIS) data contained within the municipal boundary of the Town of Amherst." In a letter of October 10, the Authority denied the request without stating any reason or informing the Town of the right to appeal the denial. You contended in your appeal that the "digital information" sought "is not a copyright product" and must be disclosed.

From my perspective, there is likely no basis for withholding the information sought. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, based on a search of our files, the Authority did not transmit a copy of your appeal to this office. As you are aware, §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law 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 of the entity, or the person therefor designated by such 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, each agency shall immediately forward to the committee on open government a copy of such appeal and the ensuing determination thereon."

Further, the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401), which govern the procedural aspects of the Law, state that:

"(a) The governing body of a public corporation or the head, chief executive or governing body of other agencies shall hear appeals or shall designate a person or body to hear appeals regarding denial of access to records under the Freedom of Information Law.

(b) Denial of access shall be in writing stating the reason therefor and advising the person denied access of his or her right to appeal to the person or body established to hear appeals, and that person or body shall be identified by name, title, business address and business telephone number. The records access officer shall not be the appeals officer" (section 1401.7).

It is also noted that the letter of denial attached to your letter did not refer to the right to appeal, and 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)].

In sum, 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.

Second, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to agency records, and §86(4) 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."

Based upon the language quoted above, if information is maintained in some physical form, it would in my opinion constitute a "record" subject to rights of access conferred by the Law. Further, the definition of "record" includes specific reference to computer tapes and discs, and it was held more than ten years ago that "[i]nformation is increasingly being stored in computers and access to such data should not be restricted merely because it is not in printed form" [Babigian v. Evans, 427 NYS 2d 688, 691 (1980); aff'd 97 AD 2d 992 (1983); see also, Szikszay v. Buelow, 436 NYS 2d 558 (1981)].

When information is maintained electronically, it has been advised that if the information sought is available under the Freedom of Information Law and may be retrieved by means of existing computer programs, an agency is required to disclose the information. In that kind of situation, the agency in my view would merely be retrieving data that it has the capacity to retrieve. Disclosure may be accomplished either by printing out the data on paper or perhaps by duplicating the data on another storage medium, such as a computer tape or disk.

In a decision that may be pertinent to your correspondence, Brownstone Publishers Inc. v. New York City Department of Buildings, the question involved an agency's obligation to transfer electronic information from one electronic storage medium to another when it had the technical capacity to do so and when the applicant was willing to pay the actual cost of the transfer. As stated by the Appellate Division, First Department:

"The files are maintained in a computer format that Brownstone can employ directly into its system, which can be reproduced on computer tapes at minimal cost in a few hours time-a cost Brownstone agreed to assume (see, POL [section] 87[1] [b] [iii]). The DOB, apparently intending to discourage this and similar requests, agreed to provide the information only in hard copy, i.e., printed out on over a million sheets of paper, at a cost of $10,000 for the paper alone, which would take five or six weeks to complete. Brownstone would then have to reconvert the data into computer-usable form at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Public Officers Law [section] 87(2) provides that, 'Each agency shall...make available for public inspection and copying all records...' Section 86(4) includes in its definition of 'record', computer tapes or discs. The policy underlying the FOIL is 'to insure maximum public access to government records' (Matter of Scott, Sardano & Pomerantz v. Records Access Officer, 65 N.Y.2d 294, 296-297, 491 N.Y.S.2d 289, 480 N.E.2d 1071). Under the circumstances presented herein, it is clear that both the statute and its underlying policy require that the DOB comply with Brownstone's reasonable request to have the information, presently maintained in computer language, transferred onto computer tapes" [166 Ad 2d, 294, 295 (1990)].

Further, in a more recent decision that cited Brownstone, it was held that: "[a]n agency which maintains in a computer format information sought by a F.O.I.L. request may be compelled to comply with the request to transfer information to computer disks or tape" (Samuel v. Mace, Supreme Court, Monroe County, December 11, 1992). That decision involved a request for a school district wide mailing list in the form of computer generated mailing labels. Since the district had the ability to generate the labels, the court ordered it to do so.

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. While I believe that one of the grounds for denial is pertinent to an analysis of rights of access, due to its structure, that provision frequently requires disclosure, and I believe that to be so in this instance.

Specifically, §87(2)(g) 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.

A recent decision rendered by the Court of Appeals focused on §87(2)(g), and in its analysis of the matter, the Court stated that:

"...we note that one court has suggested that complaint follow-up reports are exempt from disclosure because they constitute nonfinal intra-agency material, irrespective of whether the information contained in the reports is 'factual data' (see, Matter of Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD2d 443, 444, supra [citing Public Officers Law §87[2][g][111]). However, under a plain reading of §87(2)(g), the exemption for intra-agency material does not apply as long as the material falls within any one of the provision's four enumerated exceptions. Thus, intra-agency documents that contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' are subject to FOIL disclosure, whether or not embodied in a final agency policy or determination (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 62 NY2d 75, 83, supra; Matter of MacRae v. Dolce, 130 AD2d 577)...

"...Although the term 'factual data' is not defined by statute, the meaning of the term can be discerned from the purpose underlying the intra-agency exemption, which is 'to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role [will] be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers' (Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, 132 [quoting Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD2d 546, 549]). Consistent with this limited aim to safeguard internal government consultations and deliberations, the exemption does not apply when the requested material consists of 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law 87[2][g][i]. Factual data, therefore, simply means objective information, in contrast to opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making (see, Matter of Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Stainkamp, 94 AD2d 825, 827, affd on op below, 61 NY2d 958; Matter of Miracle Mile Assocs. v. Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181-182)" [Gould, Scott and DeFelice v. New York City Police Department, __ NY2d __, November 26, 1996; emphasis added by the Court].

By their nature, water readings and spatial data contained in a GIS consist of factual information. Therefore, I believe that information sought must be disclosed pursuant to §87(2)(g)(i).

Lastly, I know of no judicial decision that deals with the relationship between the Freedom of Information Law, or an access law from another jurisdiction, and a work produced by a governmental entity for which there is a copyright claim. In my opinion, particularly in view of the expansive interpretations of the Freedom of Information Law by the Court of Appeals, a claim of copyright regarding a government produced record would be superseded by the Freedom of Information Law. In general, the recipient may do with a record disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law as he or she sees fit [see M. Farbman & Sons v. NYC Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75 (1984) and Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976)]. Further, the fees for copies of records made available under the Freedom of Information Law must be based on the standards appearing in §87(1)(b)(iii), unless a different statute authorizes a higher fee, and there would be none in this instance.

With respect to fees, §87(1)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law stated until October 15, 1982, that an agency could charge up to twenty-five cents per photocopy or the actual cost of reproduction unless a different fee was prescribed by "law". Chapter 73 of the Laws of 1982 replaced the word "law" with the term "statute". As described in the Committee's fourth annual report to the Governor and the Legislature of the Freedom of Information Law, which was submitted in December of 1981 and which recommended the amendment that is now law:

"The problem is that the term 'law' may include regulations, local laws, or ordinances, for example. As such, state agencies by means of regulation or municipalities by means of local law may and in some instances have established fees in excess of twenty-five cents per photocopy, thereby resulting in constructive denials of access. To remove this problem, the word 'law' should be replaced by 'statute', thereby enabling an agency to charge more than twenty-five cents only in situations in which an act of the State Legislature, a statute, so specifies."

Therefore, prior to October 15, 1982, a local law, an ordinance, or a regulation for instance, establishing a search fee or a fee in excess of twenty-five cents per photocopy or higher than the actual cost of reproduction was valid. However, under the amendment, only an act of the State Legislature, a statute, would in my view permit the assessment of a fee higher than twenty-five cents per photocopy, a fee that exceeds the actual cost of reproducing records that cannot be photocopied, (i.e., electronic information), or any other fee, such as a fee for search or overhead costs. In addition, it has been confirmed judicially that fees inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law may be validly charged only when the authority to do so is conferred by a statute [see Gandin, Schotsky & Rappaport v. Suffolk County, 640 NYS 2d 214, ___ AD 2d ___ (1996); Sheehan v. City of Syracuse, 521 NYS 2d 207 (1987)].

Further, the specific language of the Freedom of Information Law and the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government indicate that, absent statutory authority, an agency may charge fees only for the reproduction of records. Section 87(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law states:

"Each agency shall promulgate rules and regulations in conformance with this article...and pursuant to such general rules and regulations as may be promulgated by the committee on open government in conformity with the provisions of this article, pertaining to the availability of records and procedures to be followed, including, but not limited to...

(iii) the fees for copies of records which shall not exceed twenty-five cents per photocopy not in excess of nine by fourteen inches, or the actual cost of reproducing any other record, except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute."

The regulations promulgated by the Committee state in relevant part that:

"Except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute:

(a) There shall be no fee charged for the following: (1) inspection of records; (2) search for records; or (3) any certification pursuant to this Part" (21 NYCRR 1401.8)."

Based upon the foregoing, it is likely that a fee for reproducing electronic information would involve the cost of computer time, plus the cost of an information storage medium (i.e., a computer tape or disk) to which data is transferred.

Although compliance with the Freedom of Information Law involves the use of public employees' time and perhaps other costs, the Court of Appeals has found that the Law is not intended to be given effect "on a cost-accounting basis", but rather that "Meeting the public's legitimate right of access to information concerning government is fulfillment of a governmental obligation, not the gift of, or waste of, public funds" [Doolan v. BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341, 347 (1979)].

Even if a claim based on a copyright, it is possible that your request would constitute a "fair use", for under the "fair use" factors, the "purpose and character" of your request would not involve commercial or profit making activity.

For the reasons described in the preceding commentary, I believe that the information sought must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Director, Erie County Water Authority
Mark Fuzak, Deputy Associate Attorney