December 6, 2001
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 sought an advisory opinion concerning a denial of access to certain meetings the Board of the University Auxiliary Services Corporation("UAS"). UAS is a not-for-profit corporation that contracts with SUNY/Albany to carry out a variety of functions "in furtherance of the educational goals of the University," according to UAS tax forms, including the operation of the food service, the campus bookstore and beverage vending. You indicated that "UAS by-laws require not less than one-third, nor more than one-half, of the board members be students of the University [and] the remainder is faculty and administrators of the University at Albany." You added that you were informed that a "meal plan rate increase was approved" at a meeting of the UAS Board from which you and others were "ordered to leave." You also wrote that the executive director of UAS "maintains that the UAS is a private organization that is subject to neither the Freedom of Information Law nor the Open Meetings Law."
From my perspective, based on judicial decisions, UAS is required to comply with both of those statutes. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, even if UAS has no independent responsibility to comply with the Freedom of Information Law, I believe that its records fall within the coverage of that statute.
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."
While the status of UAS as an "agency" has not been determined judicially, it is clear that the State University is an "agency" required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
In this regard, §86(4) defines the term "record" expansively 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."
Based on the foregoing, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, found that documents maintained by the Auxiliary Services Corporation, a not-for-profit corporation providing services for a different branch of the State University, were kept on behalf of the University and constituted agency "records" falling within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. I point out that the Court rejected "SUNY's contention that disclosure turns on whether the requested information is in the physical possession of the agency", for such a view "ignores the plain language of the FOIL definition of 'records' as information kept or held 'by, with or for an agency'" [ see Encore College Bookstores, Inc. v. Auxillary Services Corporation of the State University of New York at Farmingdale, 87 NY 2d 410, 417 (1995)]. Therefore, if a document is produced for an agency, it constitutes an agency record, even if it is not in the physical possession of the agency. In the context of the situation that you described, irrespective of whether UAS is an "agency", its records would be maintained for the University at Albany and would, based on Encore, constitute agency records subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, while profit or not-for-profit corporations would not in most instances be subject to the Freedom of Information Law because they are not governmental entities, there are several judicial determinations in which it was held that certain not-for-profit corporations, due to their functions and the nature of their relationship with government, are "agencies" that fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Law.
In the first decision in which it was held that a not-for-profit corporation may indeed be an "agency" required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law, [Westchester-Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball [50 NY2d 575 (1980)], a case involving 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 State's highest 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 the same decision, the Court noted that:
"...not only are the expanding boundaries of governmental activity increasingly difficult to draw, but in perception, if not in actuality, there is bound to be considerable crossover between governmental and nongovernmental activities, especially where both are carried on by the same person or persons" (id., 581).
In Buffalo News v. Buffalo Enterprise Development Corporation [84 NY 2d 488 (1994)], the Court of Appeals found again 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).
Perhaps most analogous to the situation described is a decision in which it was held that a community college foundation associated with a CUNY institution was subject to the Freedom of Information Law, despite its status as a not-for-profit corporation. In so holding, it was stated that:
"At issue is whether the Kingsborough Community College Foundation, Inc (hereinafter 'Foundation') comes within the definition of an 'agency' as defined in Public Officers Law §86(3) and whether the Foundation's fund collection and expenditure records are 'records' within the meaning and contemplation of Public Officers Law §86(4).
"The Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that was formed to 'promote interest in and support of the college in the local community and among students, faculty and alumni of the college' (Respondent's Verified Answer at paragraph 17). These purposes are further amplified in the statement of 'principal objectives' in the Foundation's Certificate of Incorporation:
'1 To promote and encourage among members of the local and college community and alumni or interest in and support of Kingsborough Community College and the various educational, cultural and social activities conducted by it and serve as a medium for encouraging fuller understanding of the aims and functions of the college'.
"Furthermore, the Board of Trustees of the City University, by resolution, authorized the formation of the Foundation. The activities of the Foundation, enumerated in the Verified Petition at paragraph 11, amply demonstrate that the Foundation is providing services that are exclusively in the college's interest and essentially in the name of the College. Indeed, the Foundation would not exist but for its relationship with the College" (Eisenberg v. Goldstein, Supreme Court, Kings County, February 26, 1988).
As in the case of the foundation in Eisenberg, that entity, and, in this instance, the UAS, would not exist but for their relationships with CUNYand SUNY respectively. Due to the similarity between the situation you have described and that presented in Eisenberg, as well as the functions of the UAS and its relationship to the University, I believe that it is subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
Next, the Open Meetings Law is applicable to meetings of public bodies, and §102(2) of that statute 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."
By breaking the definition into components, I believe that each condition necessary to a finding that the board of UAS is a "public body" may be met. It is an entity for which a quorum is required pursuant to the provisions of the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law. It consists of more than two members. In view of the degree of governmental control exercised by and its nexus with the University at Albany, I believe that it conducts public business and performs a governmental function for a governmental entity.
In Smith v. City University of New York [92 NY2d 707 (1999)], the Court of Appeals held that a student government association carried out various governmental functions on behalf of CUNY and, therefore, that its governing body is subject to the Open Meetings Law. In its consideration of the matter, the Court found 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" (id., 713).
In consideration of those criteria and applying them to the matter at hand, the UAS would not exist but for its relationship with the University; it carries out a variety of functions that the University would otherwise perform; the University has substantial control over the UAS board in the terms of membership. Further, one of the actions to which you referred, increasing the cost of the meal plan, involves the assertion of authority that could be exercised only by or on behalf of the University.
Based on the foregoing, I believe that the UAS board is a "public body" required to comply with the Open Meetings Law.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Julia Filippone, Executive Director UAS