Ms. Monica Getz, President
Dobbs Ferry League of Women Voters
Irvington, NY 10533
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
Dear Ms. Getz:
As you may be aware, Susan King has asked that I review and offer an opinion with respect to certain provisions of code of ethics proposed by the Village of Dobbs Ferry.
The focus of the inquiry involves the proposal as it may relate to the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law. Specifically, the proposed code would state in relevant part that:
"The Village Ethics Board shall, with respect to every complaint that it receives and all related deliberations, findings, opinions, recommendations and dispositions thereof:
a. hold all such matters in confidence and not publicly reveal them, to the fullest extent allowable by applicable law, including the New York State Freedom of Information Law, as it may be amended.
b. meet only in executive session, closed to the public, to the fullest extent allowed by the New York State Open Meetings Law, as it may be amended, and
c. render a written confidential report of its findings, opinions and recommendations which report will be provided to the subject of the investigation."
In my opinion, the language quoted above is unnecessary and potentially in conflict with both the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to all agency records, and §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."
Due to the breadth of the language quoted above, any documentation, irrespective of its function or origin, maintained by an agency would constitute a "record" subject to rights of access.
Second, 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.
In my view, an assertion or claim of confidentiality, unless it is based upon a statute, is likely meaningless. When confidentiality is conferred by a statute, records fall outside the scope of rights of access pursuant to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, which 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 opinion guarantee or require confidentiality.
Moreover, it has been held by several courts, including the Court of Appeals, that an agency's regulations or the provisions of a local enactment, such as an administrative code, local law, charter or ordinance, for example, do not constitute a "statute" [see e.g., Morris v. Martin, Chairman of the State Board of Equalization and Assessment, 440 NYS 2d 365, 82 Ad 2d 965, reversed 55 NY 2d 1026 (1982); Zuckerman v. NYS Board of Parole, 385 NYS 2d 811, 53 AD 2d 405 (1976); Sheehan v. City of Syracuse, 521 NYS 2d 207 (1987)]. For purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, a statute would be an enactment of the State Legislature or Congress. Therefore, a local enactment cannot confer, require or promise confidentiality. This not to suggest that many of the records used, developed or acquired in conjunction with an ethics code must be disclosed; rather, I am suggesting that those records may in some instances be withheld in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law, and that any local enactment that is inconsistent with that statute would be void to the extent of any such inconsistency.
It is likely in my view that two the grounds for denial would be particularly relevant with respect to records maintained by a board of ethics.
Section 87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law authorizes an agency to withhold records when disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public employees. It is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. With regard to records pertaining to public employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee's 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, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); 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].
Several of the decisions cited above, for example, Farrell, Sinicropi, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Powhida, dealt with situations in which determinations indicating the imposition of some sort of disciplinary action pertaining to particular public employees were found to be available. However, when allegations or charges of misconduct have not yet been determined or did not result in disciplinary action, the records relating to such allegations may, in my view, be withheld, for disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Herald Company v. School District of City of Syracuse, 430 NYS 2d 460 (1980)]. Further, to the extent that charges are dismissed or allegations are found to be without merit, I believe that they may be withheld.
There may also be privacy considerations concerning persons other than employees who may be subjects of a board's inquiries. For instance, I believe that the name of a complainant or witness could be withheld in appropriate circumstances as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
The other provision of relevance, §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. Records prepared in conjunction with an inquiry or investigation would in my view constitute intra-agency materials. Insofar as they consist of opinions, advice, conjecture, recommendations and the like, I believe that they could be withheld. Factual information would in my view be available, except to the extent, under the circumstances, that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Lastly, as in the case of the Freedom of Information Law, insofar as a local enactment is more restrictive concerning access than the Open Meetings Law, I believe that it would be void. Section 110 of the Open Meetings Law, entitled "Construction with other laws," states in subdivision (1) that:
"Any provision of a charter, administrative code, local law, ordinance, or rule or regulation affecting a public body which is more restrictive with respect to public access than this article shall be deemed superseded hereby to the extent that such provision is more restrictive than this article."
Further, although the Open Meetings Law is based upon a presumption of openness and meetings of public bodies must generally by conducted open to the public, §105(1) of the Law specifies and limits the grounds for entry for entry into executive session.
Relevant to the duties of a board of ethics is §105(1)(f) of the Law, which permits a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation..."
If the issue before a board of ethics involves a particular person in conjunction with one or more of the subjects listed in §105(1)(f), I believe that an executive session could appropriately be held. For instance, if the issue deals with the "financial history" of a particular person or perhaps matters leading to the discipline of a particular person, §105(1)(f) could in my opinion be cited for the purpose of entering into an executive session.
I also point out that a public body cannot "meet" in executive session. Section 102(3) of the Open Meetings Law defines the phrase "executive session" to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded. Moreover, a procedure must be accomplished during an open meeting before an executive session may be held. Specifically, §105(1) states in relevant part that:
"Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only..." In sum, because the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law, which are state statutes, provide the parameters concerning the extent to which records and meetings must be open or may be closed, again, I believe that specific reference in a local enactment to the extent to which records should be withheld or meetings closed is unnecessary, and that any such reference could result in confusion, difficulties of interpretation and perhaps failure to comply with state statues.
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Village Board of Trustees