January 9, 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 information presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your letter of December 15. As a member of the Mechanicville Housing Authority and a person with a disability, you questioned whether you may have the right to tape record executive sessions held by its Board. You indicated that you would use your own tape recorder and that you would pay for tapes at your own expense.
From my perspective, it is unlikely that you have the right or perhaps privilege to tape record the executive sessions, unless the Board authorizes you to do so. Further, even if you use your own property to record those sessions, I believe that recordings of executive sessions would be subject to the Freedom of Information Law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, there is no statute that deals directly with the taping of executive sessions. Several judicial decisions have dealt with the ability to use recording devices at open meetings, and although those decisions do not refer to the taping of executive sessions, their thrust is pertinent to the matter. Perhaps the leading decision concerning the use of tape recorders at meetings, a unanimous decision of the Appellate Division, involved the invalidation of a resolution adopted by a board of education prohibiting the use of tape recorders at its meetings [Mitchell v. Board of Education of Garden City School District, 113 AD 2d 924 (1985)]. In so holding, the Court stated that:
"While Education Law sec. 1709(1) authorizes a board of education to adopt by-laws and rules for its government and operations, this authority is not unbridled. Irrational and unreasonable rules will not be sanctioned. Moreover, Public Officers Law sec. 107(1) specifically provides that 'the court shall have the power, in its discretion, upon good cause shown, to declare any action *** taken in violation of [the Open Meetings Law], void in whole or in part.' Because we find that a prohibition against the use of unobtrusive recording goal of a fully informed citizenry, we accordingly affirm the judgement annulling the resolution of the respondent board of education" (id. at 925).
In view of the judicial determination rendered by the Appellate Division, I believe that a member of the public may tape record open meetings of public bodies, so long as tape recording is carried out unobtrusively and in a manner that does not detract from the deliberative process.
Again, while there are no decisions that deal with the use of tape recorders during executive sessions, I believe that the principle in determining that issue is the same as that stated above, i.e., that the Board may establish reasonable rules governing the use of tape recorders at executive sessions.
Unlike an open meeting, when comments are conveyed with the public present, an executive session is generally held in order that the public cannot be aware of the details of the deliberative process. When an issue focuses upon a particular individual, the rationale for permitting the holding of an executive session generally involves an intent to protect personal privacy, coupled with an intent to enable the members of a public body to express their opinions freely. Viewing the matter from a different vantage point, when representatives of public bodies have asked whether they should tape record executive sessions, I have suggested that doing so may result in unforeseen and potentially damaging consequences. For reasons to be discussed later in detail, I believe that a tape recording is a "record" as that term is defined in section 86(4) of the Freedom of Information Law and, therefore, would be subject to rights conferred by that statute. Further, a tape recording of an executive session may be subject to subpoena or discovery in the context of litigation. Disclosure in that kind of situation may place a public body at a disadvantage should litigation arise relative to a topic that has been appropriately discussed behind closed doors.
In short, I am suggesting that tape recording an executive session could potentially defeat the purpose of holding an executive session, and that, in my opinion, the Board could, by rule, prohibit a member from using a tape recorder at an executive session absent the consent of a majority of the board. If other members of the Board had the right or privilege to tape record executive sessions, I believe that you would have the same right or privilege. However, for the reasons expressed, I do not believe that they do, or that you would have a greater right or privilege in consideration of your condition.
Second, from my perspective, a tape recording of an executive session prepared by a Board member would fall within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. That statute pertains to all agency records and 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."
The Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, has construed the definition as broadly as its specific language suggests. The first such decision that dealt squarely with the scope of the term "record" involved documents pertaining to a lottery sponsored by a fire department. Although the agency contended that the documents did not pertain to the performance of its official duties, i.e., fighting fires, but rather to a "nongovernmental" activity, the Court rejected the claim of a "governmental versus nongovernmental dichotomy" [see Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581 (1980)] and found that the documents constituted "records" subject to rights of access granted by the Law. Moreover, the Court determined that:
"The statutory definition of 'record' makes nothing turn on the purpose for which it relates. This conclusion accords with the spirit as well as the letter of the statute. For 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.).
Additionally, in another decision rendered by the Court of Appeals, the Court focused on an agency claim that it could "engage in unilateral prescreening of those documents which it deems to be outside of the scope of FOIL" and found that such activity "would be inconsistent with the process set forth in the statute" [Capital Newspapers v. Whalen, 69 NY 2d 246, 253 (1987)]. The Court determined that:
"...the procedure permitting an unreviewable prescreening of documents - which respondents urge us to engraft on the statute - could be used by an uncooperative and obdurate public official or agency to block an entirely legitimate request. There would be no way to prevent a custodian of records from removing a public record from FOIL's reach by simply labeling it 'purely private.' Such a construction, which would thwart the entire objective of FOIL by creating an easy means of avoiding compliance, should be rejected" (id., 254).
Perhaps closest to your situation is a case involving notes taken by the Secretary to the Board of Regents that he characterized as "personal" in conjunction with a contention that he took notes in part "as a private person making personal notes of observations...in the course of" meetings. The court cited the definition of "record" and determined that the notes did not consist of personal property but rather were records subject to rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Law [Warder v. Board of Regents, 410 NYS 2d 742, 743 (1978)].
Based upon the foregoing, assuming that you record an executive session in furtherance of the performance of your duties as a member of the Board, I believe that the tape recording would constitute a "record" that falls within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. That being so, aside from the possibility that portions might be available to the public under that law, perhaps more important, and potentially more damaging to the Authority, would be disclosure in a litigation context.
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.