February 3, 2015
FROM: Camille Jobin-Davis, Assistant Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issued advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence, expect as otherwise.
This is in response to your request for an advisory opinion regarding application of the Freedom of Information Law to records in your possession from the Village of Solvay. Specifically, you were informed that your possession of such records was somehow improper or not legal because you had not obtained them through a request made pursuant to FOIL. Later, you were asked to fill out a standardized form in order to make a FOIL request.
In this regard, we note first that 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 (l) of the Law. It is our understanding that the items at issue here are records of payments made by the Village, including perhaps copies of receipts and/or drafts issued. This will confirm that there would be no basis to deny access to such records, and that although there is authority to redact bank account numbers, social security numbers and home addresses from such documents, if they were indicated, such records would otherwise be required to be made available to the public.
Second, although the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to require that a request be made in writing, it is not required. A further requirement that a form prescribed by the Village is needed to request records, in our opinion, is inconsistent with law, and, therefore, invalid. As you may be aware, §89(3) of the law, as well as the regulations promulgated by the Committee (21 NYCRR §1401.5), require that an agency respond to a request that reasonably describes the record sought within five business days of the receipt of a request. Neither the law nor the regulations refers to, requires or authorizes the use of standard forms. Accordingly, it has consistently been advised that any written request that reasonably describes the records sought should suffice, and that a failure to complete a form prescribed by an agency cannot serve to delay a response or deny a request for records.
Third, every agency such as the Village, is required to appoint a records access officer, and such officer is responsible for assuring that agency personnel provide access to records in accordance with law (21NYCRR §1401.2[a], [b]). In other words, there is no requirement that a records access officer respond directly to every request. Here, where the records are clearly public, the issue is moot.
We hope this is helpful.