January 31, 2001
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.
As you are aware, I have received your letters of November 28 and January 2, as well as related materials concerning the implementation of the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws by the Connetquot Central School District Board of Education.
The matter pertains to a "Special Executive Session Meeting" held by the Board on October 30. Because notice of the meeting indicated that the meeting would be an executive session, you wrote that no member of the public attended and that you were informed that the purpose of the meeting was to interview candidates for the position of district clerk. However, having reviewed the notes relating to the meeting, you wrote that they indicated that a "budget workshop" was held prior to the executive session. You added, however, that upon questioning, the Superintendent stated that the Board had recently attended a conference held by the New York State School Boards Association and sessions dealing with budgets, reserves and fund balances, and that the Board asked to discuss those matters at the meeting in question. When you asked for reference materials used in consideration of those issues, you were initially told that there were no materials, and later that the Board discussed the documentation distributed at the conference. It is your belief that another document, a copy of which you enclosed, was reviewed at the meeting. That document involves the same subjects as those presented in the conference materials, but they focus specifically on the District.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, the phrase "executive session" is defined in §102(3) of the Open Meetings Law to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded. As such, an executive session is not separate and distinct from a meeting, but rather is a portion of an open meeting. The Law also contains a procedure that 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..."
As indicated in the language quoted above, a motion to enter into an executive session must be made during an open meeting and include reference to the "general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered" during the executive session.
It has been consistently advised and held that a public body cannot schedule or conduct an
executive session in advance of a meeting, because a vote to enter into an executive session must be taken at an open meeting during which the executive session is held. In a decision involving the propriety of scheduling executive sessions prior to meetings, it was held that:
"The respondent Board prepared an agenda for each of the five
designated regularly scheduled meetings in advance of the time that
those meetings were to be held. Each agenda listed 'executive
session' as an item of business to be undertaken at the meeting. The
petitioner claims that this procedure violates the Open Meetings Law because under the provisions of Public Officers Law section 100 provides that a public body cannot schedule an executive session in advance of the open meeting. Section 100 provides that a public body may conduct an executive session only for certain enumerated purposes after a majority vote of the total membership taken at an open meeting has approved a motion to enter into such a session. Based upon this, it is apparent that petitioner is technically correct in asserting that the respondent cannot decide to enter into an executive session or schedule such a session in advance of a proper vote for the same at an open meeting" [Doolittle, Matter of v. Board of Education, Sup. Cty., Chemung Cty., July 21, 1981; note: the Open Meetings Law has been renumbered and §100 is now §105].
For the reasons expressed in the preceding commentary, a public body cannot in my view
schedule an executive session in advance of a meeting. In short, because a vote to enter into an executive session must be made and carried by a majority vote of the total membership during an open meeting, it cannot be known in advance of that vote that the motion will indeed be approved.
Second, while I believe that interviews of or discussions involving candidates for the position of district clerk could clearly have been conducted during an executive session, insofar as the executive session involved consideration of budgetary or fiscal matters, I believe that those issues should have been discussed in public at a meeting preceded by proper notice. Often a discussion concerning the budget has an impact on personnel. Despite its frequent use, I note that the term "personnel" appears nowhere in the Open Meetings Law. Although one of the grounds for entry into executive session often relates to personnel matters, from my perspective, the term is overused and is frequently cited in a manner that is misleading or causes unnecessary confusion. To be sure, some issues involving "personnel" may be properly considered in an executive session; others, in my view, cannot. Further, certain matters that have nothing to do with personnel may be discussed in private under the provision that is ordinarily cited to discuss personnel.
The language of the so-called "personnel" exception, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law, is limited and precise. In terms of legislative history, as originally enacted, the provision in question permitted a public body to enter into an executive session to discuss:
"...the medical, financial, credit or employment history of any person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of any person or corporation..."
Under the language quoted above, public bodies often convened executive sessions to discuss matters that dealt with "personnel" generally, tangentially, or in relation to policy concerns. However, the Committee consistently advised that the provision was intended largely to protect privacy and not to shield matters of policy under the guise of privacy.
To attempt to clarify the Law, the Committee recommended a series of amendments to the
Open Meetings Law, several of which became effective on October 1, 1979. The recommendation made by the Committee regarding §105(1)(f) was enacted and states that a public body may 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..." (emphasis added).
Due to the insertion of the term "particular" in §105(1)(f), I believe that a discussion of "personnel" may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when at least one of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) is considered.
When a discussion concerns matters of policy, such as the manner in which public money
is expended or allocated, the functions of a department or perhaps the creation or elimination of positions, I do not believe that §105(1)(f) could be asserted, even though the discussion may relate to "personnel". For example, if a discussion involves staff reductions or layoffs due to budgetary concerns, the issue in my view would involve matters of policy. Similarly, if a discussion of possible layoff relates to positions and whether those positions should be retained or abolished, the discussion would involve the means by which public monies would be allocated. In none of the instances described would the focus involve a "particular person" and how well or poorly an individual has performed his or her duties. To reiterate, in order to enter into an executive session pursuant to §105(1)(f), I believe that the discussion must focus on a particular person (or persons) in relation to a topic listed in that provision. As stated judicially, "it would seem that under the statute matters related to personnel generally or to personnel policy should be discussed in public for such matters do not deal with any particular person" (Doolittle v. Board of Education, Supreme Court, Chemung County, October 20, 1981).
It has been advised that a motion describing the subject to be discussed as "personnel" or
"specific personnel matters" is inadequate, and that the motion should be based upon the specific language of §105(1)(f). For instance, a proper motion might be: "I move to enter into an executive session to discuss the employment history of a particular person (or persons)". Such a motion would not in my opinion have to identify the person or persons who may be the subject of a discussion. By means of the kind of motion suggested above, members of a public body and others in attendance would have the ability to know that there is a proper basis for entry into an executive session. Absent such detail, neither the members nor others may be able to determine whether the subject may properly be considered behind closed doors.
It is noted that the Appellate Division has confirmed the advice rendered by this office. In
discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving the establishment and functions of a position, the Court stated that:
"...the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed
(See, Public Officers Law § 105 ), and it is apparent that this must
be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely
reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co.
v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, 'must be narrowly crutinized, lest the article's clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder' (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, Matter of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).
"Applying these principles to the matter before us, it is apparent that the Board's stated purpose for entering into executive session, to wit, the discussion of a 'personnel issue', does not satisfy the requirements of Public Officers Law § 105 (1) (f). The statute itself requires, with respect to personnel matters, that the discussion involve the 'employment history of a particular person" (id. [emphasis supplied]).
Although this does not mandate that the individual in question be identified by name, it does require that any motion to enter into executive session describe with some detail the nature of the proposed discussion (see, State Comm on Open Govt Adv Opn dated Apr. 6, 1993), and we reject respondents' assertion that the Board's reference to a 'personnel issue' is the functional equivalent of identifying 'a particular person'" [Gordon v. Village of Monticello, 620 NY 2d 573, 575; 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].
Third, with respect to the materials that you described, I point out that the Freedom of
Information Law pertains to all agency records, and that §86(4) of the Law defines the term "record" 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 on the foregoing, when information is maintained by an agency in some physical form (i.e., drafts, worksheets, computer disks, etc.), I believe that it would constitute a "record" subject to rights of access.
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.
Pertinent with regard to materials prepared by the District is §87(2)(g), which 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.
In a case involving "budget worksheets", it was held that numerical figures, including
estimates and projections of proposed expenditures, are accessible, even though they may have been
advisory and subject to change. In that case, I believe that the records at issue contained three
columns of numbers related to certain areas of expenditures. One column consisted of a breakdown
of expenditures for the current fiscal year; the second consisted of a breakdown of proposed
expenditures recommended by a state agency; the third consisted of a breakdown of proposed
expenditures recommended by a budget examiner for the Division of the Budget. Although the latter
two columns were merely estimates and subject to modification, they were found to be "statistical
tabulations" accessible under the Freedom of Information Law as originally enacted [see Dunlea v.
Goldmark, 380 NYS 2d 496, aff'd 54 AD 2d 446, aff'd 43 NY 2d 754 (1977)]. At that time, the
Freedom of Information Law granted access to "statistical or factual tabulations" [see original Law,
§88(1)(d)]. Currently, §87(2)(g)(i) requires the disclosure of "statistical or factual tabulations or data". As stated by the Appellate Division in Dunlea:
"[I]t is readily apparent that the language statistical or factual
tabulation was meant to be something other than an expression of
opinion or naked argument for or against a certain position. The
present record contains the form used for work sheets and it
apparently was designed to accomplish a statistical or factual
presentation of data primarily in tabulation form. In view of the
broad policy of public access expressed in §85 the work sheets have
been shown by the appellants as being not a record made available in §88" (54 Ad 2d 446, 448)."
The Court was also aware of the fact that the records were used in the deliberative process, stating that:
"The mere fact that the document is a part of the deliberative process is irrelevant in New York State because §88 clearly makes the back-up factual or statistical information to a final decision available to the public. This necessarily means that the deliberative process is to be a subject of examination although limited to tabulations. In particular, there is no statutory requirement that such data be limited to 'objective' information and there no apparent necessity for such a limitation" (id. at 449).
Based upon the language of the determination quoted above, which was affirmed by the state's highest court, it is my view that the records in question, to the extent that they consist of "statistical or factual tabulations or data", are accessible, unless a provision other than §87(2)(g) could be asserted as a basis for denial.
Further, another decision highlighted that the contents of materials falling within the scope
of section 87(2)(g) represent the factors in determining the extent to which inter-agency or intra-agency materials must be disclosed or may be withheld. For example, in Ingram v. Axelrod, the Appellate Division held that:
"Respondent, while admitting that the report contains factual data,
contends that such data is so intertwined with subject analysis and
opinion as to make the entire report exempt. After reviewing the
report in camera and applying to it the above statutory and regulatory
criteria, we find that Special Term correctly held pages 3-5 ('Chronology of Events' and 'Analysis of the Records') to be disclosable. These pages are clearly a 'collection of statements of objective information logically arranged and reflecting objective reality'. (10 NYCRR 50.2[b]). Additionally, pages 7-11 (ambulance records, list of interviews) should be disclosed as 'factual data'. They also contain factual information upon which the agency relies (Matter of Miracle Mile Assoc. v Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181 mot for lve
to app den 48 NY2d 706). Respondents erroneously claim that an agency record necessarily is exempt if both factual data and opinion are intertwined in it; we have held that '[t]he mere fact that some of the data might be an estimate or a recommendation does not convert it into an expression of opinion' (Matter of Polansky v Regan, 81 AD2d 102, 104; emphasis added). Regardless, in the instant situation, we find these pages to be strictly factual and thus clearly disclosable" [90 AD 2d 568, 569 (1982)].
Similarly, the Court of Appeals has specified that the contents of intra-agency materials
determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:
"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials,' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[g][i], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" (id. at 133).
In short, even when statistical or factual information may be "intertwined" with opinions, the
statistical or factual portions, if any, as well as any policy or determinations, would be available, unless a different ground for denial could properly be asserted.
The materials obtained by the School Board Association would, in my view, be accessible
for your review in their entirety, for none of the grounds for denial would apparently be pertinent. It is noted that §86(3) of the Freedom of Information Law 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."
Based on the foregoing, the exception pertains to communications between or among state or local government officials at two or more agencies ("inter-agency materials"), or communications between or among officials at one agency ("intra-agency materials"). Since the Association is not an "agency", the materials that it prepared would not fall within the exception regarding inter-agency or intra-agency materials.
Lastly, when an agency indicates that it does not maintain or cannot locate a record, an
applicant for the record may seek a certification to that effect. Section 89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law provides in part that, in such a situation, on request, an agency "shall certify that it does not have possession of such record or that such record cannot be found after diligent search."
I point out that in Key v. Hynes [613 NYS 2d 926, 205 AD 2d 779 (1994)], it was found that a court could not validly accept conclusory allegations as a substitute for proof that an agency could not locate a record after having made a "diligent search". However, in another decision, such an allegation was found to be sufficient when "the employee who conducted the actual search for the documents in question submitted an affidavit which provided an adequate basis upon which to conclude that a 'diligent search' for the documents had been made" [Thomas v. Records Access Officer, 613 NYS 2d 929, 205 AD 2d 786 (1994)].
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of open government laws, copies of this response will be sent to District officials.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education
Joseph A. Laria