Freedom of information laws have become such a vital part of how modern government operates, that it is hard to remember that prior to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, much of the operations of government were cloaked in secrecy. Secret documents that never saw the light of day. Secret meetings that no one knew were being held.
That all changed with the adoption of laws that go by a variety of names: freedom of information laws, sunshine laws, open meetings and open records laws. But how far do these laws go, and in particular do they apply to organizations such a volunteer fire company… that serve a public function, and often operate with public funds, but have traditionally been viewed as a private enterprise?
That question is at the heart of a lawsuit filed this week in Warren County, New York by two women who have sought records and tried to attend meetings of the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company. The women, Christine Hayes and June Maxam, allege that the company has flouted the freedom of information act, and are asking the court to compel the company to "turn over meeting minutes, budget reports and run sheets".
As we find with many fire service issues, the applicability of open government laws to volunteer fire companies varies tremendously from state to state. Some states require fire companies to comply with open records and open meetings requirements, some do not, and some can’t quite make up their mind.
At issue in Chestertown is whether the 1980 case of Westchester News v. Kimball, 50 NY 2d 575 (NY, 1980) applies to private, independent volunteer fire companies, a view supported by Ms. Hayes and Maxam, as well as the State Committee on Open Government. In Kimball, the highest court in New York ordered the Village to turn over the records of the volunteer fire companies.
The fire company’s lawyer, John Silvestri, disagrees, reading Kimball as a suit against a Village that has a fire chief, who apparently oversees several volunteer fire companies. Silvestri argues that the freedom of information law cannot reach private volunteer fire companies, and Kimball does not apply.
Hard to tell how it will turn out but I can tell you this: courts seem overly inclined to error on the side of allowing access to records.