June 18, 2002
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.
I have received your letter in which you questioned the sufficiency of a resolution approved by the Riverhead Board of Education "that includes no mention of who or what the resolution applies to." The resolution states that:
"...the President of the Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools are hereby authorized to execute an Agreement with a district employee. Such Agreement was reviewed by the Board in executive session. The President of the Board and the Superintendent of Schools are further authorized to execute such documents as are required by such Agreement."
Although you were informed that by an attorney for the District that he was "waiting for an opinion from [this] office", I have received no correspondence from him.
In consideration of the matter, I believe that the resolution should have included the name of the employee and that the agreement referenced in the resolution must be made available in great measure, if not in its entirety. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, §106 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to minutes, and subdivision (1) states that minutes of an open meeting must consist, at a minimum, "of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon." The only decision of which I am aware that may be pertinent to the matter is Mitzner v. Goshen Central School District Board of Education [Supreme Court, Orange County, April 15, 1993]. That case involved a series of complaints made by the petitioner that were reviewed by the school board president, and the minutes of the board meeting stated that "the Board hereby ratifies the action of the President in signing and issuing eight Determinations in regard to complaints received from Mr. Bernard Mitzner." The court held that "these bare-bones resolutions do not qualify as a record or summary of the final determination as required" by §106 of the Open Meetings Law. As such, the court found that the failure to indicate the nature of the determination of the complaints was inadequate. In the context of your inquiry, I believe that, in order to comply with the Open Meetings Law and to be consistent with the thrust of the holding in Mitzner, minutes must indicate in some manner the nature of the agreement and the identity of the employee.
Second, with respect to access to the agreement itself, I direct your attention to the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, that statute 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.
I note that there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that deals specifically with personnel records or personnel files. Further, the nature and content of so-called personnel files may differ from one agency to another, and from one employee to another. In any case, neither the characterization of documents as "personnel records" nor their placement in personnel files would necessarily render those documents "confidential" or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law (see Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980). On the contrary, the contents of those documents serve as the relevant factors in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law. Two of the grounds for denial are relevant to an analysis of the matter; neither, however, would in my view serve to justify a denial of access.
Perhaps of greatest significance is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy". In addition, §89(2)(b) provides a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy.
While the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public officers employees. It is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public officers and employees are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public officers and employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a their official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, supra; Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977].
The other ground for denial of significance, §87(2)(g), states that an agency may 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. Insofar as a request involves a final agency determination, I believe that such a determination must be disclosed, again, unless a different ground for denial could be asserted.
In Geneva Printing, supra, a public employee charged with misconduct and in the process of an arbitration hearing engaged in a settlement agreement with a municipality. One aspect of the settlement was an agreement to the effect that its terms would remain confidential. Notwithstanding the agreement of confidentiality, which apparently was based on an assertion that "the public interest is benefited by maintaining harmonious relationships between government and its employees", the court found that no ground for denial could justifiably be cited to withhold the agreement. In so holding, the court cited a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals and stated that:
"In Board of Education v. Areman, (41 NY2d 527), the Court of Appeals in concluding that a provision in a collective bargaining agreement which bargained away the board of education's right to inspect personnel files was unenforceable as contrary to statutes and public policy stated: 'Boards of education are but representatives of the public interest and the public interest must, certainly at times, bind these representatives and limit or restrict their power to, in turn, bind the public which they represent. (at p. 531).
"A similar restriction on the power of the representatives for the Village of Lyons to compromise the public right to inspect public records operates in this instance.
"The agreement to conceal the terms of this settlement is contrary to the FOIL unless there is a specific exemption from disclosure. Without one, the agreement is invalid insofar as restricting the right of the public to access."
It was also found that the record indicating the terms of the settlement constituted a final agency determination available under the Law. The decision states that:
"It is the terms of the settlement, not just a notation that a settlement resulted, which comprise the final determination of the matter. The public is entitled to know what penalty, if any, the employee suffered...The instant records are the decision or final determination of the village, albeit arrived at by settlement..."
Also pertinent is a decision in which the subject of a settlement agreement with a town that included a confidentiality clause brought suit against the town for disclosing the agreement under the Freedom of Information Law. In considering the matter, the court stated that:
"Plaintiff argues that provisions of FOIL did not mandate disclosure in this instance. However, it is clear that any attempt to conceal the financial terms of this expenditure would violate the Legislative declaration of §84 of the Public Officer's Law, as it would conceal access to information regarding expenditure of public monies.
"Although exceptions to disclosure are provided in §§87 and 89, plaintiff has not met his burden of demonstrating that the financial provisions of this agreement fit within one of these statutory exceptions (see Matter of Washington Post v New York State Ins. Dept. 61 NY2d 557, 566). While partially recognized in Matter of LaRocca v Bd. of Education, 220 AD2d 424, those narrowly defined exceptions are not relevant to defendants' disclosure of the terms of a financial settlement (see Matter of Western Suffolk BOCES v Bay Shore Union Free School District, ___AD2d___ 672 NYS2d 776). There is no question that defendants lacked the authority to subvert FOIL by exempting information from the enactment by simply promising confidentiality (Matter of Washington Post, supra p567).
"Therefore, this Court finds that the disclosure made by the defendant Supervisor was 'required by law', whether or not the contract so provided" (Hansen v. Town of Wallkill, Supreme Court, Orange County, December 9, 1998).
In short, I believe that the agreement, a contract between the District and an employee, must be disclosed. A possible exception to disclosure would involve the situation in which part of an agreement involves a requirement that the employee engage in drug or alcohol treatment, for example. In that instance, that portion of the document could, in my opinion, be deleted on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, but the remainder would ordinarily be accessible.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education