July 3, 2002
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.
I have received your letter and the materials attached to it. You have asked whether the Clarence Senior Citizens, Inc. ("the Corporation") is subject to the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws. According to the materials, the Corporation is a not-for-profit corporation.
In this regard, the Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of public bodies, and §102(2) defines the phrase "public body" to mean:
"...any entity for which a quorum is required in order to conduct public business and which consists of two or more members, performing a governmental function for the state or for an agency or department thereof, or for a public corporation as defined in section sixty-six of the general construction law, or committee or subcommittee or other similar body of such public body."
Based upon the language quoted above, a public body, in brief, is an entity consisting of two or more members that conducts public business and performs a governmental function for one or more governmental entities.
The Freedom of Information Law is applicable to agency records, and §86(3) defines the term "agency" to mean:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
In consideration of the foregoing, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law pertains to entities of state and local government in New York.
Although not-for-profit corporations typically are not governmental entities and, therefore, fall beyond the scope of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws, the courts have found that the incorporation status of those entities is, alone, not determinative of their status under the statutes in question. Rather, they have considered the extent to which there is governmental control over those corporations in determining whether they fall within the coverage of those statutes.
In the first such decision, Westchester-Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball [50 NY2d 575 (1980)], the issue involved access to records relating to a lottery conducted by a volunteer fire company, the Court of Appeals found that volunteer fire companies, despite their status as not-for- profit corporations, are "agencies" subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In so holding, the Court stated that:
"We begin by rejecting respondent's contention that, in applying the Freedom of Information Law, a distinction is to be made between a volunteer organization on which a local government relies for performance of an essential public service, as is true of the fire department here, and on the other hand, an organic arm of government, when that is the channel through which such services are delivered. Key is the Legislature's own unmistakably broad declaration that, '[a]s 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' (emphasis added; Public Officers Law, §84).
For 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 objections 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" (id. at 579]. In another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, Buffalo News v. Buffalo Enterprise Development Corporation [84 NY 2d 488 (1994)], the Court found that a not-for-profit corporation, based on its relationship to an agency, was itself an agency subject to the Freedom of Information Law. The decision indicates that:
"The BEDC principally pegs its argument for nondisclosure on the feature that an entity qualifies as an 'agency' only if there is substantial governmental control over its daily operations (see, e.g., Irwin Mem. Blood Bank of San Francisco Med. Socy. v American Natl. Red Cross, 640 F2d 1051; Rocap v Indiek, 519 F2d 174). The Buffalo News counters by arguing that the City of Buffalo is 'inextricably involved in the core planning and execution of the agency's [BEDC] program'; thus, the BEDC is a 'governmental entity' performing a governmental function for the City of Buffalo, within the statutory definition.
"The BEDC's purpose is undeniably governmental. It was created exclusively by and for the City of Buffalo...In sum, the constricted construction urged by appellant BEDC would contradict the expansive public policy dictates underpinning FOIL. Thus, we reject appellant's arguments," (id., 492-493).
Most recently, in a case involving a not-for-profit corporation, the "CRDC", the court found that:'
"...the CRDC was admittedly formed for the purpose of financing the cost of and arranging for the construction and management of the Roseland Waterpark project. The bonds for the project were issued on behalf of the City and the City has pledged $395,000 to finance capital improvements associated with the park. The CRDC denies the City has a controlling interest in the corporation. Presently the Board has eleven members, all of whom were appointed by the City (see Resolution #99-083). The Board is empowered to fill any vacancies of six members not reserved for City appointment. Of those reserved to the City, two are paid City employees and the other three include the City mayor and council members. Formerly the Canandaigua City Manager was president of the CRDC. Additionally, the number of members may be reduced to nine by a board vote (see Amended Certificate of Incorporation Article V(a)). Thus the CRDC's claim that the City lacks control is at best questionable.
"Most importantly, the City has a potential interest in the property in that it maintains an option to purchase the property at any time while the bonds are outstanding and will ultimately take a fee title to the property financed by the bonds, including any additions thereto, upon payment of the bonds in full. Further, under the Certificate of Incorporation, title to any real or personal property of the corporation will pass to the City without consideration upon dissolution of the corporation. As in Matter of Buffalo News, supra, the CRDC's intimate relationship with the City and the fact that the CRDC is performing its function in place of the City necessitates a finding that it constitutes an agency of the City of Canandaigua within the meaning of the Public Officers Law and therefore is subject to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law...
"In Smith v. City University of New York, supra at page 713, the Court of Appeals held that 'in determining whether the entity is a public body, various criteria or benchmarks are material. They include the authority under which the entity is created, the power distribution or sharing model under which it exists, the nature of its role, the power it possesses and under which it purports to act, and a realistic appraisal of its functional relationship to affected parties and constituencies.' In the present case, the CRDC is clearly exercising more than an advisory function and qualifies as a public body within the meaning of the Public Officers Law. The CRDC is a formally constituted body with pervasive control over the entity it was created to administer. It has officially established duties and organizational attributes of a substantive nature which fulfill a governmental function for public benefit. As such its operations are subject to the Open Meetings Law" (Canandaigua Messenger, Inc. v. Wharmby, Supreme Court, Ontario County, May 11, 2001).
I note that the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the findings of the Supreme Court regarding the foregoing in a decision rendered on March 15 of this year.
A review of the by-laws of the corporation indicates that the Clarence Town Board exercises substantial control over the Corporation and its Board of Directors. Article IV, subdivision (1) states that "Members of the Board of Directors shall be appointed by a majority of the Clarence Town Board." Subdivision (2) provides that "At each annual organization meeting of the Clarence Town Board, said Town Board shall appoint Board of Director members to serve for such terms as hereinafter provided or until his prior resignation or removal." Subdivision (3) states in part that: "The number of directors may be increased or decreased by votes of a majority of the Clarence Town Board." Subdivision (5) provides that: "Any or all of the member directors may be removed for cause by a majority vote of the members of the Board of Directors and a majority of the Clarence Town Board. Member directors may removed without cause only by vote of the Clarence Town Board."
In short, the Town Board essentially has complete control over the membership of the Board of Directors of the Corporation. That being so, and in consideration of the judicial decisions cited earlier, I believe that the Corporation is subject to both the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws.
If my contention is accurate, there may portions of the by-laws which are, in my view, inconsistent with law. For instance, in subdivision (9) the members are authorized to vote by phone and in subdivision (14), they may authorize other members to vote on their behalf by proxy. Neither in my view would be consistent with the Open Meetings Law. I note, too, that §41 of the General Construction Law indicates that action may be taken only by means of an affirmative vote of a majority of the total membership of a public body, but that subdivision (8) authorizes action to be taken by a majority of those present when a quorum convenes.
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any questions arise regarding the foregoing, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Town Attorney