TO: Debra Cohen
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 information presented in your correspondence.
Dear Ms. Cohen:
I have received your letter in which you sought an advisory opinion concerning a denial of your request for a certain record by the City of Yonkers.
According to your letter, early in February, the Mayor:
“...held a press conference and announced an agreement with three developers for a $3 billion development project for downtown Yonkers. During the press conference the Mayor and the developers ‘signed’ a Master Development Agreement with great fanfare.”
Having requested the agreement signed by the Mayor and the developers, you were denied access and informed that the agreement was “ceremonially” signed and “was non-binding as the agreement requires approval by several agencies.” You were informed that the agreement would be available after it is approved by the City Council.
Based on your description of the facts, the agreement, in my view, should have been disclosed. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
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.
From my perspective, only one of the exceptions to rights of access is pertinent in consideration of the matter. Specifically, §87(2)(c) permits an agency to deny access to records to the extent that disclosure "would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations." The key word in that provision in my opinion is "impair", and the question under that provision involves whether or the extent to which disclosure would "impair" the contracting process by diminishing the ability of the government to reach an optimal agreement on behalf of the taxpayers. That an agreement has not received final approval, in my opinion, is not determinative of rights of access or, conversely, an agency's ability to deny access to records. Rather, I believe that consideration of the effects of disclosure is the primary factor in determining the extent to which §87(2)(c) may justifiably be asserted.
As I understand its application, §87(2)(c) generally encompasses situations in which an agency or a party to negotiations maintains records that have not been made available to others. For example, if an agency seeking bids or proposals has received a number of bids, but the deadline for their submission has not been reached, premature disclosure for the bids to another possible submitter might provide that person or firm with an unfair advantage vis a vis those who already submitted bids. Further, disclosure of the identities of bidders or the number of bidders might enable another potential bidder to tailor his bid in a manner that provides him with an unfair advantage in the bidding process. In such a situation, harm or "impairment" would likely be the result, and the records could justifiably be denied. However, after the deadline for submission of bids or proposals are available after a contract has been awarded, and that, in view of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law, "the successful bidder had no reasonable expectation of not having its bid open to the public" [Contracting Plumbers Cooperative Restoration Corp. v. Ameruso, 105 Misc. 2d 951, 430 NYS 2d 196, 198 (1980)]. Similarly, if an agency is involved in collective bargaining negotiations with a public employee union, and the union requests records reflective of the agency's strategy, the items that it considers to be important or otherwise, its estimates and projections, it is likely that disclosure to the union would place the agency at an unfair disadvantage at the bargaining table and, therefore, that disclosure would "impair" negotiating the process.
It is noted that the Court of Appeals sustained the assertion of §87(2)(c) in a case that did not clearly involve "contract awards" or collective bargaining negotiations. In Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency [56 NY2d 888 (1982)], the issue pertained to real property transactions where appraisals in possession of an agency were requested prior to the consummation of a transaction. Because premature disclosure would have enabled the public to know the prices the agency sought, thereby potentially precluding the agency from receiving optimal prices, the agency's denial was upheld [see Murray v. Troy Urban Renewal Agency, 56 NY 2d 888 (1982)].
In each of the kinds of the situations described earlier, there is an inequality of knowledge. In the bid situation, the person who seeks bids prior to the deadline for their submission is presumably unaware of the content of the bids that have already been submitted; in the context of collective bargaining, the union would not have all of the agency's records relevant to the negotiations; in the appraisal situation, the person seeking that record is unfamiliar with its contents. As suggested above, premature disclosure of bids would enable a potential bidder to gain knowledge in a manner unfair to other bidders and possibly to the detriment of an agency and, therefore, the public. Disclosure of an records regarding collective bargaining strategy or appraisals would provide knowledge to the recipient that might effectively prevent an agency from engaging in an agreement that is most beneficial to taxpayers.
Conversely, however, in a case involving negotiations between a New York City agency and the Trump organization, the court referred to an opinion that I prepared and adopted the reasoning offered therein, stating that:
"Section 87(2)(c) relates to withholding records whose release could impair contract awards. However, here this was not relevant because there is no bidding process involved where an edge could be unfairly given to one company. Neither is this a situation where the release of confidential information as to the value or appraisals of property could lead to the City receiving less favorable price.
"In other words, since the Trump organization is the only party involved in these negotiations, there is no inequality of knowledge between other entities doing business with the City" [Community Board 7 v. Schaffer, 570 NYS 2d 769, 771 (1991); Aff'd 83 AD 2d 422; reversed on other grounds 84 NY 2d 148 (1994)].
It appears that the situation that you described is analogous in terms of principle to that found in Community Board 7. Based on the language of §87(2)(c), it is clear in my opinion that the absence of “final” approvals by other agencies is not determinative of an agency's ability to deny access to records relating to the contracting process. Further, in a case involving a contract that was awarded by a state agency and requested prior to final approvals by the Attorney General and the State Comptroller, it was held by the Appellate Division that the records sought “could no longer be competitively sensitive”, that §87(2)(c) could not validly be asserted and that, therefore, they were accessible to the public [Cross-Sound Ferry v. Department of Transportation, 219 AD2d 346, 634 NYS2d 575, 577 (1995)].
Lastly, it is emphasized that the courts have consistently interpreted the Freedom of Information Law in a manner that fosters maximum access. As stated by the Court of Appeals more than decade ago:
"To be sure, the balance is presumptively struck in favor of disclosure, but in eight specific, narrowly constructed instances where the governmental agency convincingly demonstrates its need, disclosure will not be ordered (Public Officers Law, section 87, subd 2). Thus, the agency does not have carte blanche to withhold any information it pleases. Rather, it is required to articulate particularized and specific justification and, if necessary, submit the requested materials to the courts for in camera inspection, to exempt its records from disclosure (see Church of Scientology of N.Y. v. State of New York, 46 NY 2d 906, 908). Only where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld" [Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)]."
In another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, it was held that:
"Exemptions are to be narrowly construed to provide maximum access, and the agency seeking to prevent disclosure carries the burden of demonstrating that the requested material falls squarely within a FOIL exemption by articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 566 (1986); see also, Farbman & Sons v. New York City, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984); and Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)].
Moreover, in the same decision, in a statement regarding the intent and utility of the Freedom of Information Law, it was found that:
"The Freedom of Information Law expresses this State's strong commitment to open government and public accountability and imposes a broad standard of disclosure upon the State and its agencies (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 79). The statute, enacted in furtherance of the public's vested and inherent 'right to know', affords all citizens the means to obtain information concerning the day-to-day functioning of State and local government thus providing the electorate with sufficient information 'to make intelligent, informed choices with respect to both the direction and scope of governmental activities' and with an effective tool for exposing waste, negligence and abuse on the part of government officers" (id., 565-566).
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this opinion will be forwarded to Mayor Amicone.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Hon. Philip A. Amicone