April 7, 1998
Mr. David D. Stone
P.O. Box 125
Fultonville, NY 12072
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 Mr. Stone:
I have received your recent undated letter in which you sought"documentation" concerning a variety of questions.
The first involves "tape recorder as a back up only at a meeting and clerk to take minutes." If I understand your comment correctly, it is common for a clerk to tape record meetings as an aid in the preparation of minutes. While a tape recording would likely contain the elements of minutes, minutes should be nonetheless reduced to writing in order that they constitute a permanent, written record that can be viewed by the public. Perhaps just as
important, a municipality often might need a permanent written record readily accessible to its officials who must refer to or rely upon the minutes in the performance of their duties. I point out, too, that in an opinion rendered by the State Comptroller, it was found that, although tape recordings may be used as an aid in compiling minutes, they do not constitute the "official record" (1978 Op. St. Compt. File #280).
Second, the State Archives and Records Administration, pursuant to provisions of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, develops schedules indicating minimum retention periods for various kinds of records. A town or village clerk, in that person's capacity as "records management officer", would have a copy of the retention schedule, which indicates that tape recordings of meetings must be retained for a minimum of four months. The retention schedule may also be obtained from the State Archives and Records Administration by calling (518) 474-6926.
Third, you sought a basis for a statement that minutes must be available within two weeks following a meeting. In this regard, subdivision (3) of §106 of the Open Meetings Law states that:
"Minutes of meetings of all public bodies shall be available to the public in accordance with
the provisions of the freedom of information law within two weeks from the date of such
meetings except that minutes taken pursuant to subdivision two hereof shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session."
As such, a public body has two weeks from a meeting to prepare minutes and make them available.
I note that there is nothing in the Open Meetings Law or any other statute of which I am aware that requires that minutes be approved.
Nevertheless, as a matter of practice or policy, many public bodies approve
minutes of their meetings. In the event that minutes have not been approved,
to comply with the Open Meetings Law, it has consistently been advised that
minutes be prepared and made available within two weeks, and that if the
minutes have not been approved, they may be marked "unapproved", "draft"
or "non-final", for example. By so doing within the requisite time limitations,
the public can generally know what transpired at a meeting; concurrently, the
public is effectively notified that the minutes are subject to change. If minutes
have been prepared within less than two weeks, I believe that those
unapproved minutes would be available as soon as they exist, and that they
may be marked in the manner described above.
The next statement is that "monthly financial statements given to board also available to public on request." Here I direct your attention to the Freedom of Information Law. That statute, in brief, 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, a monthly financial statement, i.e., a statement detailing
revenues and expenditures, would be available for none of the grounds for
denial would apply.
You asked whether a village attorney is required "to provide the local laws and answer legal questions proposed by residents in a timely manner." If a person is seeking copies of local laws, they would be available under the Freedom of Information Law. Those kinds of records can generally be obtained from a municipal clerk. I believe that a village attorney is designated or appointed to perform legal work for a village board of trustees and other
village officials. I know of no requirement that a village attorney answer questions raised by residents.
Similarly, although the Freedom of Information Law requires that agencies respond to requests for and grant access to records and the Open Meetings Law provides a right to attend meetings of public bodies, neither law requires that government officials answer questions. This is not to suggest that government officials cannot answer questions, but rather that they are not required to do so under the two statutes cited. It is also noted
that the Freedom of Information Law pertains to existing records, and that §89(3) of that statute provides in part that an agency is not required to create a record in response to requests.
You referred to efforts in obtaining salary information. While the nature of your inquiry is not completely clear, I point out that a payroll list must be maintained by each agency. Specifically, §87(3)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law states in relevant part that:
"Each agency shall maintain...
(b) a record setting forth the name, public office address, title and salary of every officer
or employee of the agency... "
As such, a payroll record that identifies all officers or employees by name, public office address, title and salary must be prepared to comply with the Freedom of Information Law. Moreover, I believe that the payroll record and other related records identifying employees and their salaries must be disclosed.
Of relevance is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold record or portions of records when disclosure would result in "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." However, payroll information has been found by the courts to be available [see e.g., Miller v. Village of Freeport, 379 NYS 2d 517, 51 AD 2d 765, (1976); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NYS 2d 954 (1978)]. In Gannett, supra, the Court of Appeals held that the identities of former employees laid off due to budget cuts, as well as current employees, should be made available. In addition, this Committee has advised and the courts have upheld the notion that records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of public employees are generally available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible as opposed to an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [Gannett, supra; Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 109 AD 2d 292, aff'd 67 NY 2d 562 (1986) ; Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, October 30, 1980; Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975) ; and Montes v. State, 406 NYS 664 (Court of Claims 1978)]. As stated prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, payroll records:
"...represent important fiscal as well as operational information. The identity of the employees and their salaries are vital statistics kept in the proper recordation of departmental functioning and are the primary sources of protection against employment favoritism. They are subject therefore to inspection" Winston v. Mangan, 338 NYS 2d 654, 664 (1972)].
In short, a record identifying agency employees by name, public office address, title and salary must in my view be maintained and made available.
Lastly, you referred to a requirement that you must fill out "the correct
form" and to delays in responses to requests. In this regard, I do not believe
that an agency can require that a request be made on a prescribed form. The
Freedom of Information Law, §89(3), as well as the regulations promulgated
by the Committee (§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. Further, the regulations indicate that "an agency may require
that a request be made in writing or may make records available upon oral request" [§1401.5(a)]. As such, neither the Law nor the regulations refer to, require or authorize the use of standard forms. Accordingly, it has consistently been advised that any written request that reasonably describes the records sought should suffice.
It has also been advised that a failure to complete a form prescribed by an agency cannot serve to delay a response or deny a request for records.
A delay due to a failure to use a prescribed form might result in an
inconsistency with the time limitations imposed by the Freedom of
Information Law. For example, assume that an individual requests a record
in writing from an agency and that the agency responds by directing that a
standard form must be submitted. By the time the individual submits the
form, and the agency processes and responds to the request, it is probable that more than five business days would have elapsed, particularly if a form is sent by mail and returned to the agency by mail. Therefore, to the extent that an agency's response granting, denying or acknowledging the receipt of a request is given more than five business days following the initial receipt of the written request, the agency, in my opinion, would have failed to comply with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Law.
While the Law does not preclude an agency from developing a standard form, as suggested earlier, I do not believe that a failure to use such a form can be used to delay a response to a written request for records reasonably described beyond the statutory period. However, a standard form may, in my opinion, be utilized so long as it does not prolong the time
limitations discussed above. For instance, a standard form could be completed by a requester while his or her written request is timely processed by the agency. In addition, an individual who appears at a government office and makes an oral request for records could be asked to complete the standard form as his or her written request.
In sum, it is my opinion that the use of standard forms is inappropriate to the extent that is unnecessarily serves to delay a response to or deny a request for records.
Moreover, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests.
Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt
of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to
the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement
of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request
will be granted or denied..."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law.
That provision states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial
to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the
receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons
for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman