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March 27, 2001

 

OML-AO-3284

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

As you are aware, I have received a variety of material concerning access to "draft
unapproved minutes" of meetings of the Rye City Council, and you have sought an advisory opinion on the matter.

From my perspective, the draft minutes should be disclosed, on request, as soon as they exist. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, that a document is characterized as a draft is not determinative of rights of access, for
the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to all agency records. Section 86(4) of that statute defines the term "record" 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, once information exists in some physical form, i.e., a draft, it constitutes a "record" subject to rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Law.

Second, §106 of the Open Meetings Law pertains to minutes of meetings and states that:

"1. 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.

2. Minutes shall be taken at executive sessions of any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon; provided, however, that such summary need not include any matter
which is not required to be made public by the freedom of information law as added by article six of this chapter.

3. Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be
available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."

In view of the foregoing, it is clear in my opinion that minutes of open meetings must be prepared and made available "within two weeks of the date of such meeting."

There is nothing in the Open Meetings Law or any other statute of which I am aware that
requires that minutes be approved. Nevertheless, as a matter of practice or policy, many public bodies approve minutes of their meetings. In the event that minutes have not been approved, to comply with the Open Meetings Law, it has consistently been advised that minutes be prepared and made available within two weeks, and that if the minutes have not been approved, they may be marked "unapproved", "draft" or "preliminary", for example. By so doing within the requisite time limitations, the public can generally know what transpired at a meeting; concurrently, the public is effectively notified that the minutes are subject to change. If minutes have been prepared within less than two weeks, again, I believe that those unapproved minutes would be available as soon as they exist, and that they may be marked in the manner described above.

Third, returning to the Freedom of Information Law, as you aware, 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. In my view, minutes of open meetings are clearly available; any person could have been present at the meetings to which the minutes relate, and none of the grounds for denial would apply.

Although draft minutes might be characterized as "intra-agency materials" that fall within
the scope of §87(2)(g), an analysis of that provision and its judicial interpretation indicates that they must be disclosed. Section 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 emphasized 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.

I point out that one of the contentions offered by the New York City Police Department in
a case decided by the Court of Appeals was that certain reports could be withheld because they are not final and because they relate to incidents for which no final determination had been made. The Court rejected that finding and stated that:

"...we note that one court has suggested that complaint follow-up reports are exempt from disclosure because they constitute nonfinal intra-agency material, irrespective of whether the information contained in the reports is 'factual data' (see, Matter of Scott v. Chief Medical Examiner, 179 AD2d 443, 444, supra [citing Public Officers Law §87[2][g][iii)]. However, under a plain reading of §87(2)(g), the exemption for intra-agency material does not apply as long as the material falls within any one of the provision's four enumerated exceptions. Thus, intra-agency documents that contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' are subject to FOIL disclosure, whether or not embodied in a final agency policy or determination (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 62 NY2d 75, 83, supra; Matter of MacRae v. Dolce, 130 AD2d 577)..." [Gould et al. v. New York City Police Department, 87 NY2d 267, 276 (1996)].

In short, that a record is in "draft" or is "non-final" would not represent an end of an analysis of rights of access or an agency's obligation to review the entirety of its contents.

The Court also dealt with the issue of what constitutes "factual data" that must be disclosed
under §87(2)(g)(i). In its consideration of the matter, the Court found that:

"...Although the term 'factual data' is not defined by statute, the meaning of the term can be discerned from the purpose underlying the intra-agency exemption, which is 'to protect the deliberative process of the government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role [will] be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers' (Matter of Xerox Corp. v. Town of Webster, 65 NY2d 131, 132 [quoting Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD2d 546, 549]). Consistent with this limited aim to safeguard internal government consultations and deliberations, the exemption does not apply when the requested material consists of 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law 87[2][g][i]. Factual data, therefore, simply means objective information, in contrast to
opinions, ideas, or advice exchanged as part of the consultative or deliberative process of government decision making (see, Matter of Johnson Newspaper Corp. v. Stainkamp, 94 AD2d 825, 827, affd on op below, 61 NY2d 958; Matter of Miracle Mile Assocs. v. Yudelson, 68 AD2d 176, 181-182)" (id., 276-277).

Minutes of a meeting open to the public do not involve "internal government consultations
or deliberations"; on the contrary, information contained in those records has effectively been disclosed to the public already.

Lastly, in consideration of the preceding commentary, I do not believe that there would be
any valid reason for delaying disclosure of the records in question. In my view, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, if records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, or if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals has asserted:

"...the successful implementation of the policies motivating the
enactment of the Freedom of Information Law centers on goals as
broad as the achievement of a more informed electorate and a more
responsible and responsive officialdom. By their very nature such
objectives cannot hope to be attained unless the measures taken to
bring them about permeate the body politic to a point where they
become the rule rather than the exception. The phrase 'public
accountability wherever and whenever feasible' therefore merely
punctuates with explicitness what in any event is implicit"
[Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 579 (1980)].

If a request is voluminous and a significant amount of time is needed to locate records and
review them to determine rights of access, a delay in disclosure might be reasonable. On the other hand, if a record or report is clearly public and can be found easily, there would appear to be no rational basis for a delay.

I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to
contact me.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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