March 31, 2006
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.
I have received your letter and the materials relating to it. You have requested an advisory opinion concerning the propriety of certain actions involving the Long Beach City Council.
You wrote that:
"The new administration hired a new City Manager on 1/3/06. He is a retiree of the New York City Police Dept. and receives a pension. Then, on 1/22, the new administration placed a classified ad in the New York Times for a City Manager, seemingly as a procedural step in helping the retiree get a waiver from the State Civil Service Commission, so that he may collect his pension and his City Manager salary of $137,000."
You also transmitted a transcript of a City Council meeting involving an exchange between the City Council President, Mr. Remo, and Councilman Hennessey in which the latter sought answers to questions relating to the ad. The Council President indicated that the issues involved a "personnel matter" that should be discussed in executive session. Councilman Hennessey persisted and raised a series of questions as follows:
"I’d like to know if Mr. Remo had any input into the placement of the ad, I’d like to know if any other members of the council had any input into the placement of the advertisement. I’d like to know where the purchasing agent gets the legal authority to take the lead on placing such an ad. I want to know how we paid for the ad, I want to know who authorized the payment of the ad. I would like to know whose idea it was in the first place to place the ad. I would like to know why Mr. Sofield and myself were excluded from the placement of the ad and why we had to find out with a phone call from somebody else that the ad was placed. I’d like to know who developed the criteria and I think that’s very very important. The criterial for the ad is very very specific in that it requires two things, a master’s degree in a government related field and police, I’m sorry, policing at the executive level. I’d like to know who had the authority to develop the criteria specifically. Who chose to put that in the ad and why that specific criteria was chosen. I’d like to know also with regards to the criteria including the police officer experience, why do we need that experience now as opposed to city planning, opposed to city financing, opposed to municipal law (not law enforcement) but municipal law and I’d also like to know why police officer experience is such a high importance in the advertisement especially when the city’s major crime rate has dropped nearly 40% and the crime across the country is down, why is that issue more important than the other issues that the city is facing. I’d like to know if Mr. Laffey was in involved in any way shape or form in drafting or placing the ad for the position for which he holds."
In response, the Council President said that "It has to do with the hiring process" and reiterated that any discussion should occur during an executive session, for the issues constitute a personnel matter.
Later in the exchange, the Council President indicated that he would provide answers to the Councilman’s questions in writing, but only after having received an "assurance" that "anything that will be discussed in executive session given to you in writing does not find its way into the public..."
From my perspective, the foregoing indicates that the Council President and perhaps Council members do not properly understand either the Open Meetings Law or the Freedom of Information Law. It is emphasized that the term "personnel" appears in neither of those statutes, and that the characterization of an issue as a "personnel matter" does not necessarily to lead to a conclusion that the matter is confidential. On the contrary, frequently discussions concerning personnel matters, for reasons to be described in the ensuing commentary, must be conducted in public. Similarly, there are numerous aspects of personnel records that must be disclosed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
By way of background, the Open Meetings Law is based upon a presumption of openness. Stated differently, meetings of public bodies must be conducted open to the public, except to the extent that the subject matter under consideration may properly be discussed during an executive session.
It is noted that every meeting must be convened as an open meeting, and that §102(3) of the Open Meetings Law defines the phrase "executive session" to mean a portion of an open meeting during which the public may be excluded. Consequently, it is clear that an executive session is not separate and distinct from an open meeting, but rather that it is a part of an open meeting. Moreover, the Open Meetings Law requires that a procedure be accomplished, during an open meeting, before a public body may enter into an executive session. 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 such, a motion to conduct an executive session must include reference to the subject or subjects to be discussed, and the motion must be carried by majority vote of a public body's membership before such a session may validly be held. The ensuing provisions of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may appropriately be considered during an executive session. Therefore, a public body may not conduct an executive session to discuss the subject of its choice.
Second, while one of the grounds for entry into executive session may relate to personnel matters, the language of that provision is precise. In its original form, §105(1)(f) of the Open Meetings Law 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 now 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 under that provision may be considered in an executive session only when the subject involves a particular person or persons, and only when one or more of the topics listed in §105(1)(f) are considered.
When a personnel matter involves "the hiring process", as it was described by the Council President, rather than a "particular person", I do not believe that §105(1)(f) may be asserted to justify holding an executive session. Further, having reviewed the questions raised by Councilman Hennessey that were quoted earlier, none, in my view, pertains to a particular person, and discussions of and answers to those questions must, in my opinion, occur in public to comply with law. I point out that even though an issue or an action taken might relate only to one employee, when that action would affect or serve as precedent in cases arising in the future pertaining to other persons in similar situations, there would be no basis for entry into executive session. In a decision involving different facts but in my opinion the same principle, it was held that the "personnel" exception for entry into executive session was not validly asserted. The Appellate Division, Second Department, determined that:
"In relying on the exception contained in paragraph f, the town asserts that its decision 'applied to a particular person, the Appellant herein'. While the town board's decision certainly did affect petitioner, and indeed at the time the decision was made affected only him, the town board's decision was a policy decision to not extend insurance benefits to police officers on disability retirement. Presumably this policy decision will apply equally to all persons who enter into that class of retirees. Thus, it cannot be said that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss 'the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person'" [Weatherwax v. Town of Stony Point, 97 AD 2d 840, 841 (1983)].
In sum, only to the extent that the matters considered by the City Council might have focused on a particular person in conjunction with one or more of the qualifying topics appearing in §105(1)(f) may an executive session properly be held.
It is also important to point out that 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.
The Appellate Division confirmed the advice rendered by this office, and 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 scrutinized, 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)].
Next, with respect to written responses to questions or any other documentary materials, the Freedom of Information Law governs rights of access. That statute is expansive in its coverage, for it pertains to all records of an agency, such as a city, and 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."
In a case in which an agency claimed, in essence, that it could remove various documents from the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law, the Court of Appeals found that:
"...respondents' construction -- permitting an agency to engage in a unilateral prescreening of those documents which it deems to be outside the scope of FOIL -- would be inconsistent with the process set forth in the statute. In enacting FOIL, the Legislature devised a detailed system to insure that although FOIL's scope is broadly defined to include all governmental records, there is a means by which an agency may properly withhold from disclosure records found to be exempt (see, Public Officers Law §87; §89,. Thus, FOIL provides that a request for access may be denied by an agency in writing pursuant to Public Officers Law §89(3) to prevent an unwarranted invasion of privacy (see, Public Officers Law §89) or for one of the other enumerated reasons for exemption (see, Public Officers Law §87). A party seeking disclosure may challenge the agency's assertion of an exemption by appealing within the agency pursuant to Public Officers Law §89(4)(a). In the event that the denial of access is upheld on the internal appeal, the statute specifically authorizes a proceeding to obtain judicial review pursuant to CPLR article 78 (see, Public Officers Law §89[b]). Respondents' construction, if followed, would allow an agency to bypass this statutory process. An agency could simply remove documents which, in its opinion, were not within the scope of the FOIL, thereby obviating the need to articulate a specific exemption and avoiding review of its action. Thus, respondents' construction would render much of the statutory exemption and review procedure ineffective; to adopt this construction would be contrary to the accepted principle that a statute should be interpreted so as to give effect to all of its provisions...
"...as a practical matter, the procedure permitting an unreviewable prescreening of documents -- which respondents urge us to engraft on the statute -- could be used by an uncooperative and obdurate public official or agency to block an entirely legitimate FOIL request. There would be no way to prevent a custodian of records from removing a public record from FOIL's reach by simply labeling it 'purely private'. Such a construction, which could thwart the entire objective of FOIL by creating an easy means of avoiding compliance, should be rejected" [Capital Newspapers v. Whalen, 69 NY 2d 246, 253-254 (1987)].
Based on the foregoing, it is clear in my opinion that any documents that may relate to the issue constitute agency records subject to whatever rights of access may exist under the Freedom of Information 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
A request for or promise of confidentiality is irrelevant in determining the extent to which City records may be withheld under the Freedom of Information Law. The Court of Appeals has held that a request for or a claim or promise of confidentiality is all but meaningless; unless one or more of the grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law may appropriately be asserted, the record sought must be made available. In Washington Post v. Insurance Department [61 NY2d 557 (1984)], the controversy involved a claim of confidentiality with respect to records prepared by corporate boards furnished voluntarily to a state agency. The Court of Appeals reversed a finding that the documents were not "records" subject to the Freedom of Information Law, thereby rejecting a claim that the documents "were the private property of the intervenors, voluntarily put in the respondents' 'custody' for convenience under a promise of confidentiality" [Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557, 564 (1984)]. Moreover, it was determined that:
"Respondent’s long-standing promise of confidentiality to the intervenors is irrelevant to whether the requested documents fit within the Legislature’s definition of ‘records’ under FOIL. The definition does not exclude or make any reference to information labeled as ‘confidential’ by the agency; confidentiality is relevant only when determining whether the record or a portion of it is exempt (see Matter of John P. v Whalen, 54 NY2d 89, 96; Matter of Fink v Lefkowitz, 47 NY2d 567, 571-572, supra; Church of Scientology v State of New York, 61 AD2d 942, 942-943, affd 46 NY2d 906; Matter of Belth v Insurance Dept., 95 Misc 2d 18, 19-20). Nor is it relevant that the documents originated outside the government...Such a factor is not mentioned or implied in the statutory definition of records or in the statement of purpose..."
The Court also concluded that "just as promises of confidentiality by the Department do not affect the status of documents as records, neither do they affect the applicability of any exemption" (id., 567).
In a different context, one involving a personnel matter, in Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons (Supreme Court, Wayne County, March 25, 1981), a public employee charged with misconduct and in the process of an arbitration hearing engaged in a settlement agreement with a municipality. One aspect of the settlement was an agreement to the effect that its terms would remain confidential. Notwithstanding the agreement of confidentiality, which apparently was based on an assertion that "the public interest is benefited by maintaining harmonious relationships between government and its employees", the court found that no ground for denial could justifiably be cited to withhold the agreement. On the contrary, it was determined that:
"the citizen's right to know that public servants are held accountable when they abuse the public trust outweighs any advantage that would accrue to municipalities were they able to negotiate disciplinary matters with its employee with the power to suppress the terms of any settlement".
As suggested earlier, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that deals specifically with personnel records or files. 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. Typically, two of the grounds for denial are relevant to an analysis of rights of access to personnel records.
Pertinent 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 an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws, copies of this opinion will be forwarded to the Council President and the members of the Council to whom you referred.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Hon. Leonard G. Remo
Hon. James P. Hennessey
Hon. Thomas R. Sofield, Jr.