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Open Meetings Law &
Freedom of Information Act
Spring 2008

Across the Board | Spring 2008 | Topic: Open Meetings Law & Freedom of Information Act
The Mid-Hudson Library System's Quarterly Newsletter for Public Library Trustees

"The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government".
-Public Officers Law, Article 6, Sections 84-90, Freedom of Information Law

Open Meetings Law & Freedom of Information Act
Public libraries in America have been called a "cornerstone of democracy." This label refers to the public's experience in using our libraries, their ability to freely access information for education, employment, enjoyment, and self-government. It is also a label that should reflect the library's internal governance structure, specifically, adherence to laws impacting open government and freedom of information.

Running the library in an open environment is essential, not only because the law says so, but for the purposes of building community support for the library. Behaving in a responsive, transparent and accountable way strengthens your position in the community, and helps build trust.

All residents have the right to know how you run the library, how decisions are made, and how funds are managed within the organization. Two New York State laws specifically impact public oversight of your library:

Open Meetings Law (OML). The Open Meetings or "Sunshine" Law went into effect in New York in 1977. The law gives the public the right to attend meetings of public bodies, listen to the debates and watch the decision-making process in action. To be clear, it does not give the public the right to speak at the meeting, however the Board can allow the public to speak, either through a defined public comment period, or simply by recognizing them from the floor.

OML applies to all public libraries. OML is contained within Public Officers Law, which applies to municipal, special district and school district public libraries. Association libraries and systems must also function in accordance with OML as stated in Education Law section 260-a.

Under OML the public has the right to attend your board meetings. A "meeting" is defined as "the official convening of a public body for the purpose of conducting public business." Therefore, any time a quorum of the board is together for the purpose of discussing library business - including committees, subcommittees and "working meetings" - the meeting must be open to the public. However, committee meetings of association libraries that serve a population under 1 million (which would be all association libraries in the MHLS region) do not fall under the Education Law provision and are excluded.

To ensure your meeting is open to the public:

Publicize meeting dates to the public in advance of your meeting.

Meetings should be held in an accessible location.

Understand what constitutes a quorum.
The library by-laws must establish what determines a quorum - the minimum number of trustees required in attendance necessary to conduct business.

Use the "closed" or executive session option legally.
Going into executive session may only be done for eight specific reasons defined by law:

1. matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agency or informer;
information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
collective negotiations pursuant to Article 14 of the Civil Service Law (the Taylor Law);
the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;
the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.

Executive sessions must happen within the context of an open meeting. To go into executive session a scheduled meeting would be called to order, a trustee can move to go into executive session for the purposes of …[see eight options above]. The board president can then invite whomever they wish to stay - the director, the library's lawyer, etc. Once finished with the executive session anyone dismissed from the room must be invited back in before the meeting can be adjourned. If an action was decided upon it should be reported in the open meeting setting and noted in the minutes.

Take adequate minutes at your meetings.
This makes it possible for those who could not attend to read the minutes and have a good understanding of the business conducted at the meeting.

The New York State Committee on Open Government has an excellent web site that includes all the basics about the law as well as an excellent archive of OML advisory opinions:

The Freedom of Information Law.
The Freedom of Information Law or "FOIL" includes public libraries (municipal, special district, and school district) but not association libraries. While association libraries do not fall under FOIL, it is advisable to consider similar policies since they are generally supported by public funds. [Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State, 2005 edition]

FOIL is NYS legislation designed to facilitate the "people's right to know." It pertains to the process of decision-making and public access to the documents and statistics that lead to decisions. The public has the right to request to view or access documents that fall under the law.

Generally, the law provides access to existing records. Therefore, a library does not need to create a record in response to a request. However, your library must retain the following:

A record retention schedule which lists types of records (library records and business records / documents) and the length of time each type must be retained is available on the MHLS web site.

A word about the confidentiality of patron records: Chapter 112, Laws of 1988, provides that any library records that personally identify users of libraries shall be confidential. Requests for these records by the general public should be refused by law. Any questions regarding access to these records should be directed to the NYS Committee of Open Government at 518.474.2518. Library staff should follow a board-approved procedure for responding to law enforcement inquiries for patron information. A sample procedure is available on the MHLS web site

Responding to Requests:

*Deniable records include records or portions thereof that:

1. are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute (see above regarding the confidentiality of patron records);

2. would if disclosed result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;

3. would if disclosed impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations;

4. are trade secrets or are submitted to an agency by a commercial enterprise or derived from information obtained from a commercial enterprise and which if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise;

5. are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which if disclosed would:

a. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings;
b. deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication;

c. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relative to a criminal investigation; or
d. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures;

6. would if disclosed endanger the life or safety of any person;

7. are inter-agency or intra-agency communications, except to the extent that such materials consist of:

a. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
b. instructions to staff that affect the public;
c. final agency policy or determinations; or
d. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government.

8. are examination questions or answers that are requested prior to the final administration of such questions; or

9. are computer access codes.

The categories of deniable records are based on the idea that disclosure would in some instances "impair," "cause substantial injury," "interfere," "deprive," "endanger," etc.

The regulations require that you post in the library:
1. locations where records are made available;
2. the name, title, business address and telephone number of the records access officer; and
3. the right to appeal a denial of access and the name and business address of the person or body to whom appeals should be directed.

For more information, visit the NYS Office on Open Government


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