July 15, 1994
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 of July 8 and the documentation attached to it.
Having sought "the detailed school district budget" from the Garden City School District, you wrote that the District granted the request. However, you asked that I review an excerpt from a record titled as a "Budget Report" in order to advise "with respect to [your] right to see more detail." The report refers to a variety of expenses, many of which include a number of allocations within a single category. For instance, under "Supplies and Materials High School", reference is made to athletic supplies for nineteen different sports, as well as printing of programs, athletic awards for boys and girls, and medical supplies. However, only one figure, a total, is provided under the column entitled "Proposed Budget."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, I am unaware of whether or the extent to which the District maintains documentation containing detail greater than that found in the excerpt of the report that you enclosed. I would conjecture, however, that materials exist that were used in arriving at the totals appearing in the report. If that is so, the materials would, in my view, fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Law.
I point out that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to 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.
Second, 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. In my opinion, two of the grounds for denial would be relevant to an analysis of District records involving more detail than those disclosed to you.
Section 87(2)(g) of the Freedom of Information Law 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 though 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 remaining provision of possible significance, §87(2)(c), states that an agency may withhold records to the extent that disclosure "would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations. If a proposed expenditure refers to services that must be negotiated with contractors or that are subject to bidding requirements, disclosure of those figures might enable contractors to tailor their bids accordingly, to the potential detriment of the District and its taxpayers. To the extent that disclosure would "impair" the process of awarding contracts or collective bargaining negotiations, it would appear that those portions of the records could be withheld.
Lastly, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law contains that statute's statement of intent. That provision states in part that:
"As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible.
"The people's right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality."
I hope that I have been of some assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Records Access Officer