December 21, 2004
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
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.
As you are aware, I have received your letter. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response. In your letter, you raised the following questions:
"Can a group move into executive session to discuss non performance of an ELECTED official in the performance of their job duties if the group has a prescribed manner to deal with the elected official in the non-performance of his/her job duties. Doesn’t the electorate have a right to know that the official may not be performing his/her duties?"
In this regard, first, the Open Meetings Law is based on a presumption of openness and requires that meetings of public bodies (i.e., municipal boards) be conducted open to the public, except to the extent that there is a basis for entry into an executive session. Paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1) specify and limit the grounds for entry into executive session.
Pertinent in the context of your inquiry is paragraph (f), which states that a public body may conduct 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, as you indicated, the public body has the ability to discipline or impose sanctions against one of its members, it would appear that a discussion concerning the possibility of doing so could be conducted during an executive session. Such a discussion would apparently involve a matter leading to the discipline of a particular person.
In a situation in which action is taken to impose some sort sanction or discipline upon a public officer or employee, I believe that the action must be memorialized in minutes prepared in accordance with §106 of the Open Meetings Law. That provision 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 meeting 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. ..."
Whether action is taken in public or during an executive session, minutes must be prepared indicating the nature of the action. Further, I believe that the record indicating the nature of such action must be disclosed as required by the Freedom of Information Law.
Like the Open Meetings Law, 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.
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, could 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.
In terms of the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law, I point out that in situations in which there has been a written reprimand, disciplinary action, or findings that public offices or employees have failed to carry out their duties or perhaps engaged in misconduct, records reflective of those kinds of determinations have been found to be available, including the names of those who are the subjects of disciplinary action [see Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); also Farrell, Geneva Printing, Scaccia and Sinicropi, supra].
In the context of your inquiry, if indeed there is a determination to impose discipline or a sanction, I believe that the record so indicating would be accessible to the public. Based on the preceding analysis, disclosure would constitute a permissible invasion of privacy. Further, it would reflect a final agency determination accessible under subparagraph (iii) of §87(2)(g).
I hope that I have been of assistance.