March 17, 1997
Ms. Ann S. Daughton
Niagara County Industrial Development Agency
2055 Niagara Boulevard - Suite One
Niagara Falls, NY 14304-1617
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. Daughton:
I have received your letter of February 21 in which you sought advice concerning the fees that may be charged by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency under the Freedom of Information Law. You indicated that the Board of the Agency expressed an interest in "charging for time spent on obtaining documents for Freedom of Information requests."
From my perspective, unless a statute, an act of the State Legislature, authorizes an agency to charge a fee for personnel time, searching for records or charging more than twenty-five cents per photocopy for records up to nine by fourteen inches, no such fees may be assessed. In this instance, I know of no statute that would authorize the Agency to do so.
By way of background, §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 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."
As such, 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, or any other fee, such as a fee for search. 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 Sheehan v. City of Syracuse, 521 NYS 2d 207 (1987)].
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 states 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 section 1401.8).
As such, the Committee's regulations specify that no fee may be charged for personnel time, for inspection of or search for records, except as otherwise prescribed by statute.
Lastly, although compliance with the Freedom of Information Law involves the use of public employees' time, 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)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman