May 15, 2003
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, unless otherwise indicated.
I have received your note in which you asked that I comment with respect to a proposal to develop a new policy to be considered by the Village of Tuckahoe Board of Trustees.
In a memorandum addressed to the Board of Trustees, the Village Attorney wrote that:
"While it has been the policy of the Village to permit open access to building department and assessment records, it has been brought to my attention that access to such records may present a danger to persons and property. Detailed construction and site plans and related information as to building systems are located in the building department and assessment files. In this era of heightened security awareness, disclosure of such information relating to the numerous manufacturing facilities, offices and residences in Tuckahoe should be limited."
In a separate memorandum sent to me, it was stated that:
"The Village intends to evaluate its records and adopt a policy relating to access to the records. Pending a full evaluation and adoption of a new policy, the following guidelines will be in effect:
"Records and files of the Building Department and Assessor will only be made available for review upon request by
1. The owner of the property. If the owner is a corporation, partnership or other legal entity, such person must show evidence of his or her status; 2. A person representing the written consent of the owner to access the records; and 3. A person including but not limited to authorized representatives of title or appraisal companies, showing evidence of consent of the owner to access the records."
From my perspective, the guidelines are inappropriate and inconsistent with law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, 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. It is emphasized that the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the exceptions that follow. In my view, the phrase quoted in the preceding sentence evidences a recognition on the part of the Legislature that a single record or report, for example, might include portions that are available under the statute, as well as portions that might justifiably be withheld. That being so, I believe that it also imposes an obligation on an agency to review records sought, in their entirety, to determine which portions, if any, might properly be withheld or deleted prior to disclosing the remainder.
Second, it has been held that when records are accessible under that statute, they are equally available to any person, regardless of status or interest [see Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976) and M. Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY2d 75 (1984)].
Third, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, expressed its general view of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law in Gould v. New York City Police Department [87 NY 2d 267 (1996)], stating that:
"To ensure maximum access to government records, the 'exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption' (Matter of Hanig v. State of New York Dept. of Motor Vehicles, 79 N.Y.2d 106, 109, 580 N.Y.S.2d 715, 588 N.E.2d 750 see, Public Officers Law § 89[b]). As this Court has stated, '[o]nly where the material requested falls squarely within the ambit of one of these statutory exemptions may disclosure be withheld' (Matter of Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 N.Y.2d, 567, 571, 419 N.Y.S.2d 467, 393 N.E.2d 463)" (id., 275).
Next, there is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that authorizes a person or agency to claim, promise or engage in an agreement conferring confidentiality in the context of your inquiry.
In a case in which a law enforcement agency permitted persons reporting incidents to indicate on a form their preference concerning the agency's disclosure of the incident to the news media, the Appellate Division found that, as a matter of law, the agency could not withhold the record based upon the "preference" of the person who reported the offense. Specifically, in Johnson Newspaper Corporation v. Call, Genesee County Sheriff, 115 AD 2d 335 (1985), it was found that:
"There is no question that the 'releasable copies' of reports of offenses prepared and maintained by the Genesee County Sheriff's office on the forms currently in use are governmental records under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Law (Public Officers Law art 6) subject, however, to the provisions establishing exemptions (see, Public Officers Law section 87). We reject the contrary contention of respondents and declare that disclosure of a 'releasable copy' of an offense report may not be denied, as a matter of law, pursuant to Public Officers Law section 87(2)(b) as constituting an 'unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' solely because the person reporting the offense initials a box on the form indicating his preference that 'the incident not be released to the media, except for police investigative purposes or following arrest'."
Similarly, the Court of Appeals has held that a request for or a promise of confidentiality is all but meaningless; unless one or more of the grounds for denial appearing in the Freedom of Information Law may appropriately be asserted, the record sought must be made available. In Washington Post v. Insurance Department [61 NY2d 557 (1984)], the controversy involved a claim of confidentiality with respect to records prepared by corporate boards furnished voluntarily to a state agency. The Court of Appeals reversed a finding that the documents were not "records" subject to the Freedom of Information Law, thereby rejecting a claim that the documents "were the private property of the intervenors, voluntarily put in the respondents' 'custody' for convenience under a promise of confidentiality" [Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557, 564 (1984)]. Moreover, it was determined that:
"Respondent's long-standing promise of confidentiality to the intervenors is irrelevant to whether the requested documents fit within the Legislature's definition of 'records' under FOIL. The definition does not exclude or make any reference to information labeled as 'confidential' by the agency; confidentiality is relevant only when determining whether the record or a portion of it is exempt (see Matter of John P. v Whalen, 54 NY2d 89, 96; Matter of Fink v Lefkowitz, 47 NY2d 567, 571-572, supra; Church of Scientology v State of New York, 61 AD2d 942, 942-943, affd 46 NY2d 906; Matter of Belth v Insurance Dept., 95 Misc 2d 18, 19-20). Nor is it relevant that the documents originated outside the government...Such a factor is not mentioned or implied in the statutory definition of records or in the statement of purpose..."
The Court also concluded that "just as promises of confidentiality by the Department do not affect the status of documents as records, neither do they affect the applicability of any exemption" (id., 567).
In a different context, in Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons (Supreme Court, Wayne County, March 25, 1981), a public employee charged with misconduct and in the process of an arbitration hearing engaged in a settlement agreement with a municipality. One aspect of the settlement was an agreement to the effect that its terms would remain confidential. Notwithstanding the agreement of confidentiality, which apparently was based on an assertion that "the public interest is benefited by maintaining harmonious relationships between government and its employees", the court found that no ground for denial could justifiably be cited to withhold the agreement. On the contrary, it was determined that:
"the citizen's right to know that public servants are held accountable when they abuse the public trust outweighs any advantage that would accrue to municipalities were they able to negotiate disciplinary matters with its employee with the power to suppress the terms of any settlement".
In so holding, the court cited a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals and stated that:
"In Board of Education v. Areman, (41 NY2d 527), the Court of Appeals in concluding that a provision in a collective bargaining agreement which bargained away the board of education' s right to inspect personnel files was unenforceable as contrary to statutes and public policy stated: 'Boards of education are but representatives of the public interest and the public interest must, certainly at times, bind these representatives and limit or restrict their power to, in turn, bind the public which they represent. (at p. 531).
"A similar restriction on the power of the representatives for the Village of Lyons to compromise the public right to inspect public records operates in this instance.
"The agreement to conceal the terms of this settlement is contrary to the FOIL unless there is a specific exemption from disclosure. Without one, the agreement is invalid insofar as restricting the right of the public to access."
I note, too, that it has been held by several courts, including the Court of Appeals, that an agency's regulations or the provisions of a local enactment, such as an administrative code, local law, charter or ordinance, for example, do not constitute a "statute" [see e.g., Morris v. Martin, Chairman of the State Board of Equalization and Assessment, 440 NYS 2d 365, 82 Ad 2d 965, reversed 55 NY 2d 1026 (1982); Zuckerman v. NYS Board of Parole, 385 NYS 2d 811, 53 AD 2d 405 (1976); Sheehan v. City of Syracuse, 521 NYS 2d 207 (1987)]. For purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, a statute would be an enactment of the State Legislature or Congress. Therefore, a local enactment cannot confer, require or promise confidentiality.
Based on the foregoing, I believe that the "guidelines" relating to disclosure are invalid insofar as they are inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law. This is not to suggest that some aspects of the records at issue may not be withheld, but rather that the Freedom of Information Law and other statutes govern the ability of the Village to withhold records, not the guidelines.
For instance, the provision cited by the Village Attorney may be applicable, depending on the nature of the records and the effects of disclosure. That provision, §87(2)(f), permits an agency to withhold records or portions thereof which if disclosed "would endanger the life or safety of any person." Although an agency has the burden of defending secrecy and demonstrating that records that have been withheld clearly fall within the scope of one or more of the grounds for denial [see §89(4)(b)], in the case of the assertion of that provision, the standard developed by the courts is somewhat less stringent. In citing §87(2)(f), it has been found that:
"This provision of the statute permits nondisclosure of information if it would pose a danger to the life or safety of any person. We reject petitioner's assertion that respondents are required to prove that a danger to a person's life or safety will occur if the information is made public (see, Matter of Nalo v. Sullivan, 125 AD2d 311, 312, lv denied 69 NY2d 612). Rather, there need only be a possibility that such information would endanger the lives or safety of individuals...."[emphasis mine; Stronza v. Hoke, 148 AD2d 900,901 (1989)].
The principle enunciated in Stronza has appeared in several other decisions [see Ruberti, Girvin & Ferlazzo v. NYS Divsion of the State Police, 641 NYS 2d 411, 218 AD2d 494 (1996), Connolly v. New York Guard, 572 NYS 2d 443, 175 AD 2d 372 (1991), Fournier v. Fisk, 83 AD2d 979 (1981) and McDermott v. Lippman, Supreme Court, New York County, NYLJ, January 4, 1994], and it was determined in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Siebert that when disclosure would "expose applicants and their families to danger to life or safety", §87(2)(f) may properly be asserted [442 NYS2d 855, 859 (1981)]. Also notable is the holding by the Appellate Division in Flowers v. Sullivan [149 AD2d 287, 545 NYS2d 289 (1989)] in which it was held that "the information sought to be disclosed, namely, specifications and other data relating to the electrical and security transmission systems of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, falls within one of the exceptions" (id., 295). In citing §87(2)(f), the Court stated that:
"It seems clear that disclosure of details regarding the electrical, security and transmission systems of Sing Sing Correctional Facility might impair the effectiveness of these systems and compromise the safe and successful operation of the prison. These risks are magnified when we consider the fact that disclosure is sought by inmates. Suppression of the documentation sought by the petitioners, to the extent that it exists, was, therefore, consonant with the statutory exemption which shelters from disclosure information which could endanger the life or safety of another" (id.).
In short, although §87(2)(f) refers to disclosure that would endanger life or safety, the courts have clearly indicated that "would" means "could." If records have been previously disclosed to the public, it would be difficult in my view for an agency to prove that disclosure of the records could now or in the future endanger life or safety.
If a person seeks the building plans concerning my house, which is not unique, I do not believe that there would be any basis for a denial of access. If, however, the plans concerning a bank include detailed information concerning its alarm or security system, disclosure could endanger life or safety and may be withheld to that extent. However, to suggest that all building plans are confidential or restricted is, in my opinion, inconsistent with law.
Assessment records have long been available, and an assessment roll indicating the location, ownership and assessed value of real property must be disclosed, not only pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law, but also §516 of the Real Property Tax Law, irrespective of its intended use. To restrict disclosure in the manner suggested by the guidelines would, in my view, be inconsistent with law. Related records, however, might justifiably be withheld. When a senior citizen seeking an exemption submits a federal tax form as a means of indicating his or her qualification for an the exemption, it has been advised that the form may be withheld pursuant to §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law on the ground that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." When a private company submits detailed financial information reflective of income and expenses relating to commercial property, §87(2)(d) might enable an agency to withhold portions of the documentation, those portions which if disclosed "would cause substantial injury to the competitive position" of the commercial enterprise. That provision might be asserted with respect to some records of that nature, but not all, and a general restriction regarding all such records would, again, be inconsistent with law.
In short, I believe that the guidelines, if enforced, would frequently result in failures to comply with law.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, copies of this opinion will be sent to Village officials.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman Executive Director
cc: Board of Trustees Les Maron, Village Attorney