February 24, 2006
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.
We are in receipt of your January 9, 2006 request for an advisory opinion concerning the application of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws to requests made to the Town of Mamakating. In response to your many questions, we offer the following comments.
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.
One of your requests pertains to correspondence between Town officials that was denied on the ground that the materials involve “personnel matters.” Here we point out that there is no exception for “personnel matters” in the Freedom of Information Law, and the term “personnel” appears nowhere in that statute. The nature and content of so-called personnel records 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.
In analyzing the issue with respect to the Zoning Board of Appeals correspondence to which you seek access, the exception of greatest significance may be §87(2)(b). That provision permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion 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 and 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. Further, 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 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, 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].
Another provision of significance may be §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 our view be withheld.
To the extent that the correspondence indicates final agency policy, a determination of the ZBA and/or instructions to the staff ZBA attorney which affects the public, we believe that it would be required to be made available pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law.
With regard to your question about educational seminars on open government issues, there is no requirement that elected officials attend any such seminars. It may be that the seminar to which the Supervisor referred is one of the many conducted by our Executive Director. Should you require further related information, most of our materials are available online at our website noted above.
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.” If you consider it worthwhile to do so, you could seek such a certification.
Turning to your questions pertaining to public participation at meetings of the Town Board, we note that while individuals may have the right to express themselves and to speak, we do not believe that they necessarily have the right to do so at meetings of public bodies. It is noted that there is no constitutional right to attend meetings of public bodies. Those rights are conferred by statute, i.e., by legislative action, in laws enacted in each of the fifty states. In the absence of a statutory grant of authority to attend such meetings, we do not believe that the public would have the right to attend.
There is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that pertains to the right of those in attendance to speak or otherwise participate at meetings. Certainly a member of the public may attend meetings and may speak or express opinions about meetings or about the conduct of public business before or after meetings to other persons. However, since neither the Open Meetings Law nor any other provision of which we are aware provides the public with the right to speak during meetings, we do not believe that a public body is required to permit the public to do so. Clearly a public body may in our view permit the public to speak, and if it does so, it has been suggested that rules and procedures be developed that regarding the privilege to speak that are reasonable and that treat members of the public equally. From our perspective, a rule authorizing any person in attendance to speak for a maximum prescribed time on agenda items, and those items only, would be reasonable and valid, so long as it is carried out reasonably and consistently.
Next, as you may be aware, §30 of the Town Law provides in part that the town clerk "shall attend all meetings of the town board, act as clerk thereof, and keep a complete and accurate record of the proceedings of each meeting." As such, a town clerk has the statutory duty to prepare minutes of meetings of a town board.
The Open Meetings Law includes direction concerning the minimum contents of minutes and the time within which they must be prepared. Specifically, §106 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."
Based upon the foregoing, it is clear that minutes must be prepared and made available within two weeks.
We note, too, that there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law or any other statute of which we are 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 they may be marked "unapproved", "draft" or "non-final", 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 a clerk does not prepare minutes in accordance within two weeks as required by law, he or she would have failed to carry out his or her statutory duties. A legal remedy addressing any such failure would involve the initiation by any person of a proceeding under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules to compel the clerk to carry out his or her duties in a manner consistent with law.
Turning now to what appears to be the Town’s constructive denial of your requests for records, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied...”
It is noted that new language was added to that provision on May 3 (Chapter 22, Laws of 2005) stating that:
“If circumstances prevent disclosure to the person requesting the record or records within twenty business days from the date of the acknowledgement of the receipt of the request, the agency shall state, in writing, both the reason for the inability to grant the request within twenty business days and a date certain within a reasonable period, depending on the circumstances, when the request will be granted in whole or in part.”
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access in writing, or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date within twenty business days indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied. If it is known that circumstances prevent the agency from granting access within twenty business days, or if the agency cannot grant access by the approximate date given and needs more than twenty business days to grant access, however, it must provide a written explanation of its inability to do so and a specific date by which it will grant access. That date must be reasonable in consideration of the circumstances of the request.
The amendments clearly are intended to prohibit agencies from unnecessarily delaying disclosure. They are not intended to permit agencies to wait until the fifth business day following the receipt of a request and then twenty additional business days to determine rights of access, unless it is reasonable to do so based upon “the circumstances of the request.” It is our perspective that every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and we 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, when 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 delay in disclosure. As the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, 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)].
In a judicial decision concerning the reasonableness of a delay in disclosure that cited and confirmed the advice rendered by this office concerning reasonable grounds for delaying disclosure, it was held that:
“The determination of whether a period is reasonable must be made on a case by case basis taking into account the volume of documents requested, the time involved in locating the material, and the complexity of the issues involved in determining whether the materials fall within one of the exceptions to disclosure. Such a standard is consistent with some of the language in the opinions, submitted by petitioners in this case, of the Committee on Open Government, the agency charged with issuing advisory opinions on FOIL”(Linz v. The Police Department of the City of New York, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, December 17, 2001).
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time beyond the approximate date of less than twenty business days given in its acknowledgement, if it acknowledges that a request has been received, but has failed to grant access by the specific date given beyond twenty business days, or if the specific date given is unreasonable, a request may be considered to have been constructively denied [see §89(4)(a)]. In such a circumstance, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a), which states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
Section 89(4)(b) was also amended, and it states that a failure to determine an appeal within ten business days of the receipt of an appeal constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules. Although we are not advising you to institute an Article 78 proceeding against the Town, that would be one of the options available to you should an appeal go unanswered.
Additionally, insofar as the Town Clerk specifically denied access to certain records, she did not refer to your right to appeal the denial. Section 89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law states in relevant part that:
"any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive or governing body of the entity, or the person therefor designated by such head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
Further, the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401), which govern the procedural aspects of the Law, state that:
"(a) The governing body of a public corporation or the head, chief executive or governing body of other agencies shall hear appeals or shall designate a person or body to hear appeals regarding denial of access to records under the Freedom of Information Law.
(b) Denial of access shall be in writing stating the reason therefor and advising the person denied access of his or her right to appeal to the person or body established to hear appeals, and that person or body shall be identified by name, title, business address and business telephone number. The records access officer shall not be the appeals officer" (§1401.7).
It is also noted that the state's highest court has held that a failure to inform a person denied access to records of the right to appeal enables that person to seek judicial review of a denial. Citing the Committee's regulations and the Freedom of Information Law, the Court of Appeals in Barrett v. Morgenthau held that:
"[i]nasmuch as the District Attorney failed to advise petitioner of the availability of an administrative appeal in the office (see, 21 NYCRR 1401.7[b]) and failed to demonstrate in the proceeding that the procedures for such an appeal had, in fact, even been established (see, Public Officers Law [section] 87[b], he cannot be heard to complain that petitioner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies" [74 NY 2d 907, 909 (1989)].
In sum, a Town's records access officer has the duty individually, or in that person's role of coordinating the response to a request, to inform a person denied access of the right to appeal, as well as the name and address of the person or body to whom an appeal may be directed.
On behalf of the Committee on Open Government, we hope this is helpful to you. In an effort to enhance understanding of and compliance with the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this advisory opinion will be forwarded to the Town officials.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis
cc: Town Board