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Volume 4 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 25

Opinions of Counsel index

Public records (assessor’s workbook) (field book) - General Municipal Law, § 51; Public Officers Law, Article 6:

Assessors’ workbooks or field books constitute public records which may be inspected or copied.

Our opinion has been requested as to whether “assessor’s workbooks” or “field books” constitute public records which may be inspected or copied pursuant to the provisions of Article 6 of the Public Officers Law, known as the Freedom of Information Law, which became effective September 1, 1974.

The Freedom of Information Law does not specifically define individual records by name, which must be made available for inspection or copying but does make reference to “. . . files, records, papers or documents required by any provision of law to be made available for public inspection . . .”.

Section 51 of the General Municipal Law provides, in part:

. . . All books of minutes, entry or account, and the books, bills, vouchers, checks, contracts or other papers connected with or used or filed in the office of, or with any officer, board or commission acting for or on behalf of any county, town, village or municipal corporation in this state or any body corporate or other unit of local government in this state which possesses the power to levy taxes or benefit assessments upon real estate or to require the levy of such taxes or assessments or for which taxes or benefit assessments upon real estate may be required pursuant to law to be levied . . . are hereby declared to be public records, and shall be open during all regular business hours, subject to reasonable regulations to be adopted by the applicable local legislative body, to the inspection of any taxpayer or registered voter, who may copy, photograph or make photocopies thereof on the premises where such records are regularly kept. . . .

In Sears-Roebuck & Company v. Hoyt, 202 Misc. 43, 107 N.Y.S.2d 756, it was held that a taxpayer had the right to inspect and make copies of Kardex record cards prepared by the assessor and his associates. These cards, prepared between 1940 and 1951, covered some 9,000 parcels of realty, and they were held to be public records within the meaning of section 51 of the General Municipal Law.

In Sanchez v Papontos, 32 App.Div.2d 948, 303 N.Y.S.2d 711, it was held that taxpayers could inspect record cards filed by an appraisal firm. The county board of supervisors had authorized an appraisal company to reappraise real property in Putnam County for use of the assessors, and subsequently the taxpayers sought to inspect the pencil-marked data cards which were used as one of the guides in preparing the final assessment roll. It was held that the taxpayer should be allowed to inspect these cards pursuant to the provisions of section 51 of the General Municipal Law, the court stating:

These cards are more than a work product. They were prepared at the direction of the board of supervisors and are kept on hand for review and correction.

In a 1970 unreported case, Romas v. Huffcut, Supreme Court, County of Broome, it was held:

There is no evidence in the papers that the information contained in the “field books” is confidential, that information to be obtained therefrom would be prejudicial to the respondents, or that they are not on file in the assessor’s office. Section 51 of the General Municipal Law and section 144 of the Education Law defining public records are broad. . . . Within the meaning of section 144 of the Education Law, no intention appears that these “field books” should not be a public record and they constitute a written book or paper . . . .

Accordingly, even prior to the effective date of the Freedom of Information Law, the courts had been liberal in the interpretation of section 51 of the General Municipal Law and section 144 of the Education Law with regard to the definition of public records which may be examined by any taxpayer.

Prior to the Freedom of Information Law it was also held that reasonable regulations could be established by local governments regarding the inspection of public records. For example, times and dates when records could be inspected might be specified and someone wishing to make an extensive inspection of records or to photograph a lengthy record, could be required to do so only in the presence of the public officer having custody of the record in question or his designee, The number of records to be inspected at any one time could be limited and other reasonable regulations could be adopted to insure that the ability of public officers to perform their functions would not be impeded.

Section 88 of the Public Officers Law specifically requires local governments to adopt rules and regulations with regard to the time, place and procedures for inspecting or copying public records or obtaining copies of public records and the fees to be charged for furnishing such records.

Accordingly, the “assessor’s workbook” or “field book” constitute public records which may be inspected or copied, or copies must be furnished upon request and upon payment of the required fees.

September 19, 1974