December 22, 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.
I have received your letter in which you asked whether a volunteer department is subject to the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Laws.
In this regard, the Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of public bodies. Section 102(2) of the Law defines "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."
By reviewing the components in the definition of "public body", I believe that each is present with respect to the board of a volunteer fire company. The board of a volunteer fire company is clearly an entity consisting of two or more members. I believe that it is required to conduct its business by means of a quorum under the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law. Further, in my view, a volunteer fire company at its meetings conducts public business and performs a governmental function. Such a function is carried out for a public corporation, which is defined to include a municipality, such as a town or village, for example. Since each of the elements in the definition of "public body" pertains to the board of a volunteer fire company, it appears that the board of such a company is a "public body" subject to the Open Meetings Law.
I point out that the status of volunteer fire companies had long been unclear. Those companies are generally not-for-profit corporations that perform their duties by means of contractual relationships with municipalities. As not-for-profit corporations, it was questionable whether or not they conducted public business and performed a governmental function. Nevertheless, in a case brought under the Freedom of Information Law dealing with the coverage of that statute with respect to volunteer fire companies, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, found that a volunteer fire company is an "agency" that falls within the provisions if the Freedom of Information Law [see Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575 (1980)]. In its decision, the Court clearly indicated that a volunteer fire company performs a governmental function and that its records are subject to rights of access granted by the Freedom of Information Law.
In view of the decision rendered in Westchester Rockland, I believe that the board of a volunteer fire company falls within the definition of "public body" and would be required to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
With respect to the scope of the Freedom of Information Law, as indicated above, that statute applies 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."
As such, the Freedom of Information Law generally pertains to records maintained by entities of state and local government.
In Westchester-Rockland, the case involved access to records relating to a lottery conducted by a volunteer fire company, and it was determined 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).
"True, the Legislature, in separately delineating the powers and duties of volunteer fire departments, for example, has nowhere included an obligation comparable to that spelled out in the Freedom of Information statute (see Village Law, art 10; see, also, 39 NY Jur, Municipal Corporations, §§560-588). But, absent a provision exempting volunteer fire departments from the reach of article 6-and there is none-we attach no significance to the fact that these or other particular agencies, regular or volunteer, are not expressly included. 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].
Moreover, although it was contended that documents concerning the lottery were not subject to the Freedom of Information Law because they did not pertain to the performance of the company's fire fighting duties, the Court held that the documents constituted "records" subject to the Freedom of Information Law [see §86(4)].
More recently, another decision confirmed in an expansive manner that volunteer fire companies are required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. That decision, S.W. Pitts Hose Company et al. v. Capital Newspapers (Supreme Court, Albany County, January 25, 1988), dealt with the issue in terms of government control over volunteer fire companies. In its analysis, the Court states that:
"Section 1402 of the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law is directly applicable to the plaintiffs and pertains to how volunteer fire companies are organized. Section 1402(e) provides:
'...a fire corporation, hereafter incorporated under this section shall be under the control of the city, village, fire district or town authorities having by law, control over the prevention or extinguishment of fires therein. Such authorities may adopt rules and regulations for the government and control of such corporations.'
"These fire companies are formed by consent of the Colonie Town Board. The Town has control over the membership of the companies, as well as many other aspects of their structure, organization and operation (section 1402). The plaintiffs' contention that their relationship with the Town of Colonie is solely contractual is a mischaracterization. The municipality clearly has, by law, control over these volunteer organizations which reprovide a public function.
"It should be further noted that the Legislature, in enacting FOIL, intended that it apply in the broadest possible terms. '...[I]t is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible' (Public Officers Law, section 84).
"This court recognizes the long, distinguished history of volunteer fire companies in New York State, and the vital services they provide to many municipalities. But not to be ignored is that their existence is inextricably linked to, dependent on, and under the control of the municipalities for which they provide an essential public service."
Based upon the foregoing, it is clear that volunteer fire companies are subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
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. Similarly, the Open Meetings Law requires that meetings be conducted in public, except to the extent that there is a basis for entry in to an executive session. Paragraphs (a) through (h) of §105(1) specify and limit the subjects that may properly be discussed during an executive session.
The text of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws, as well as "Your Right to Know", which describes both laws, are available on our website.
I hope that I have been of assistance.