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August 7, 1996

 

 

Mr. James W. Harris
28 Twilight Drive
Clifton Park, NY 12065

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. Harris:

As you are aware, I have received your letter of August 2. You indicated that in response to a request for minutes and other records concerning its deliberations, you were informed by the Board of Assessment Review of the Town of Clifton Park that it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Law. You have questioned the validity of that assertion.

From my perspective, a board of assessment review clearly falls within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to agency records, and §86(3) of that statute defines the term "agency" to mean:

"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."

Since the entity in question is a municipal board that performs a governmental function for a town, I believe that it clearly constitutes an "agency" that falls within the scope of the Freedom of Information Law.

Second, for purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, the term "record" [§86(4)] is defined 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."

Based on the foregoing, any materials maintained by the Board would constitute "records" subject to rights of access.

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.

In most instances, records submitted by a grievant must be disclosed, for none of the grounds for denial would apply. With respect to records prepared by the Board or other Town officials, of possible significance is §87(2)(g). Although that provision potentially serves as a basis for a denial of access, due to its structure, it often requires disclosure. 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.

Lastly, I believe that a board of assessment review is also a "public body" required to comply with the Open Meetings Law [see Open Meetings Law, §102(2)]. While meetings of public bodies generally must be conducted in public unless there is a basis for entry into executive session, following public proceedings conducted by boards of assessment review, I believe that their deliberations could be characterized as "quasi-judicial proceedings" that would be exempt from the Open Meetings Law pursuant to §108(1) of that statute. It is emphasized, however, that even when the deliberations of such a board may be outside the coverage of the Open Meetings Law, its vote and other matters would not be exempt. As stated in Orange County Publications v. City of Newburgh:

"there is a distinction between that portion of a meeting...wherein the members collectively weigh evidence taken during a public hearing, apply the law and reach a conclusion and that part of its proceedings in which its decision is announced, the vote of its members taken and all of its other regular business is conducted. The latter is clearly non-judicial and must be open to the public, while the former is indeed judicial in nature, as it affects the rights and liabilities of individuals" [60 AD 2d 409,418 (1978)].

Therefore, although an assessment board of review may deliberate in private, based upon the decision cited above, the act of voting or taking action must in my view occur during a meeting.

Moreover, both the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law impose record-keeping requirements upon public bodies. With respect to minutes of open meetings, §106(1) of the Open Meetings Law states that:

"Minutes shall be taken at all open meetings of a public body which shall consist of a record or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon and the vote thereon."

Further, since its enactment, the Freedom of Information Law has contained a related requirement in §87(3). The provision states in part that:

"Each agency shall maintain:

(a) a record of the final vote of each member in every agency proceeding in which the member votes..."

In my opinion, because an assessment board of review is a "public body" and an "agency", it is required to prepare minutes in accordance with §106 of the Open Meetings Law, including a record of votes in conjunction with §87(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law.

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

RJF:pb

cc: Board of Assessment Review