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Freedom of Information

Political cartoon by Jake Fuller. Image courtesy of SunshineWeek.org

By Donna Deedy

It’s Sunshine Week (March 10-16), time for recognizing and celebrating the importance of freedom of information  laws and open government in our democracy.

Newsrooms nationwide are participating in the weeklong event, which specifically aims to help people better understand their everyday right-to-know under federal and state laws. Sponsored since 2005 by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors, TBR News Media is joining in for this year’s tribute. 

We’re focusing on New York State’s Freedom of Information Law. First enacted in 1974, the law succinctly states: “The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is fundamental to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality.” The law applies to schools and all government entities within the state.  

We’ve taken a look at the websites of towns and villages within our circulation area on Long Island’s North Shore to gauge whether or not the process is user-friendly. 

What we’ve found is most entities acknowledge their obligation to respond to Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests. The towns of Huntington, Smithtown and Brookhaven post their record access codes online, along with most incorporated villages.   Rather than posting their FOIL codes, the villages of Huntington Bay, Nissequogue, Head of the Harbor and Port Jefferson simply provide a link to a one-page preprinted FOIL request form. Port Jefferson village online code explicitly directs the public to visit Village Hall during business hours to examine its record access policy. 

Political cartoon by Joe Heller. Image courtesy of SunshineWeek.org

It’s important to note that state legislators created a special unit within New York State to answer the public’s questions and render legal opinions about open government practices. The unit, known as the Committee on Open Government, has determined government entities should not mandate the use of record request application forms. 

Villages that currently require the public to use their application forms to request records may need to revise their practices to align with state’s legal advisory opinions. 

“There’s no obligation on behalf of the requester to travel to town or village offices to view records,” said Robert Freeman, the executive director of New York State Committee on Open Government.

Fortunately, requesting records in the electronic age is easier than ever. If documents aren’t already posted online, people can simply request copies of records via an email to the record access officer. Instructions can be found on the state department’s website: https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/freedomfaq.html#howrequestemail. The record request template clearly outlines requesters basic rights within the form letter. 

Christian Trejabal is the open government chair for the Association of Opinion Journalists.  In a blogpost for Sunshine Week he opined on the need for journalists in this day and age.

“Thousands of newspapers have closed over the last 20 years,” Trejabal said. “Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Without them, government is under less scrutiny, and that isn’t healthy for democracy.” 

If you would like to know more, visit the New York Department of State Committee on Open Government website. It provides volumes of information about the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. The committee’s lawyers can also be reached by telephone at 518-474-2518. 

Donna Deedy is currently a freelancer for TBR News Media, and has years of experience in the journalism field.

File photo by Elana Glowatz

Both sides of a disagreement over public records have dug in their heels, insisting over the last few days that the fault lies with the other.

Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant originally expressed regret over a report from nonprofit group Reclaim New York — which focuses on government transparency and finances, employment and the economy — that said both her village and the Commack School District had failed to properly respond to requests for public records through the state’s Freedom of Information Law. But shortly afterward, her office sent a letter to TBR News Media responding to Reclaim New York’s claim that its appeals for spending information were ignored, saying, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The Reclaim New York office has since confirmed receiving more than 1,200 pages of documents on Tuesday morning from the village, fulfilling that public information request.

New York State’s Freedom of Information Law requires governments and school districts to respond to records requests, commonly known as FOIL requests, within five business days, whether with the information requested, a denial or an acknowledgement of the request that includes an estimated date when one of the former two will occur. Denials can be appealed, and agencies are not allowed to deny a request “on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome because the agency lacks sufficient staffing.”

As part of a project it dubbed the New York Transparency Project, Reclaim New York sent 253 Freedom of Information requests to school districts and municipalities on Long Island. It reported on its findings, saying that while many entities complied with state guidelines on processing such public records requests, on Suffolk County’s North Shore both Port Jefferson Village and the Commack district did not.

Entities that it said complied included Suffolk County; Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington towns; Belle Terre and Lake Grove villages; and the Port Jefferson, Kings Park, Huntington, Smithtown, Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Rocky Point school districts, among others.

Reclaim New York spokesperson Doug Kellogg also said Commack denied part of the FOIL request, “making big chunks essentially useless,” and that Port Jefferson Village at first was “underprepared” to properly respond to its request for 2014 information on vendors, including what the village made purchase orders for and who it made checks out to.

“Port Jeff never worked with us from there, they just ignored the appeals and our phone calls,” Kellogg wrote in an email last week.

Village Clerk Bob Juliano challenged that claim last week, noting that the same day his office received the FOIL request via email, on March 7, he acknowledged receipt. He said the treasurer was working on compiling the information, estimating it would be done by the end of May.

Commack School District spokesperson Brenda Lentsch also responded on May 20 saying that the district answered a first FOIL request, then received a second that required private information be redacted and would have come at a cost of $0.25 per page, which the district communicated to Reclaim New York.

Garant’s initial email response to the TBR News Media story was that she was “beyond disappointed” that she did not know about the FOIL request to the village.

“I would have made sure the clerk provided everything necessary in order to prevent such a bad blemish on the integrity of my administration to be pronounced in my own local paper,” she said. “I have now demanded that the clerk and the treasurer work nonstop to provide the necessary documents ASAP.”

She followed up with a letter that called Reclaim New York’s request “a blatant transparency test” that asked for extensive information: “Several village employees have had to spend significant time away from their duties serving the village in order to gather these records. So far, approximately 4,500 pages of documents have been identified and are in electronic format and the work goes on.”

The mayor said Treasurer Dave Smollett worked with the nonprofit on two occasions “to help them tailor a more focused request which would better meet their needs,” but the group “never attempted to work with the treasurer to fine-tune the request” or followed up to check its status.

“Is our village to be punished because it strives to provide comprehensive responses to records requests?” she wrote in her letter. “Would it have been better to provide a quicker response with fewer records and missing documents just to be able to say we responded?”

Reclaim New York noted an appeal email sent to the mayor’s office on April 11 that said the group had not heard back on its FOIL request, and Executive Director Brandon Muir challenged the mayor’s contention that his group attacked the village in a statement this week.

“Reclaim New York’s Transparency Project treats every municipality the same,” he said. “It’s designed to create more open government for the people of our state.”

He said he hoped the village would work with Reclaim New York to provide the spending information it requested.

“People deserve to see how their local government spends their money,” Muir said. “It’s an important step toward holding officials accountable, and giving people more confidence in government. We don’t see how anyone could argue with that.”

Port Jefferson Village Hall. File photo by Heidi Sutton

By Margot Garant

I am writing in response to statements made by Reclaim New York in a recent article in the Port Times Record (“Report: Long Island public agencies fail to comply with FOIL requests,” May 18). Reclaim New York, the self-anointed guardians of public transparency, claim the Village of Port Jefferson ignored “the appeals and our phone calls” to release public records on vendor information and purchase orders. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We accepted Reclaim’s request in March. It was not a simple inquiry for documents, but a blatant transparency test sent to every government agency on Long Island. They requested every single vendor, its address, payment listing, check numbers, banking routing numbers, etc. The village treasurer did contact Reclaim staff on two occasions and asked for clarification on their blanket request to help them tailor a more focused request which would better meet their needs. Reclaim’s representative never attempted to work with the treasurer to fine-tune the request. Several village employees have spent significant time away from their duties in order to gather these records. So far, approximately 4,500 pages of documents have been identified and are in electronic format and the work goes on. Other municipalities have provided thin responses to Reclaim’s request for vendor records. Is our village to be punished because it strives to provide comprehensive responses to records requests? Would it have been better to provide a quicker response with fewer records and missing documents just to be able to say we responded? I think this would defeat the very purpose of public transparency.

Contrary to how they misled our local newspaper, Reclaim did not reach out to us to check the status of their records request after it was accepted, nor have they ever submitted the legally required appeal challenging the timing of our response. Had Reclaim simply picked up a phone or emailed me or the village clerk, they would have learned that we have been working on a detailed and comprehensive response to their request, more accurate and more complete than what many other municipalities have provided. This was an agenda-driven fishing expedition and it is unfair to criticize our village as part of their statewide campaign.

As the mayor, I have always pushed for increased transparency on the village budget and public records. Our record on this issue is unmatched. We should not be punished for providing more transparency. I ask that in the future, Reclaim reach out to us before they attack our village in the press and on social media.

Margot Garant is the mayor of Port Jefferson Village.

Port Jefferson Village is crafting its budget for next year. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Two North Shore public agencies did not comply with records requests during a large-scale look into government transparency, Reclaim New York has reported.

The nonprofit, which focuses on government transparency and finances, employment and the economy, sent Freedom of Information requests to school districts and municipalities throughout Suffolk County, as well as Nassau County and locations in the lower Hudson Valley, as part of its transparency project. In its report, Reclaim New York said that while many entities along Suffolk’s North Shore complied with state guidelines on processing such public records requests, both Port Jefferson Village and the Commack school district did not.

New York State’s Freedom of Information Law requires governments and school districts to respond to records requests within five business days, whether with the information requested, a denial or an acknowledgement of the request that includes an estimated date when one of the former two will occur. Denials can be appealed, and agencies are not allowed to deny a request “on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome because the agency lacks sufficient staffing.”

Reclaim New York spokesperson Doug Kellogg claimed that Commack denied part of the FOIL request, “making big chunks essentially useless,” and that Port Jefferson Village at first “said they could not send an Excel document, which would show they are underprepared.”

“Port Jeff never worked with us from there, they just ignored the appeals and our phone calls,” Kellogg wrote in an email this week.

Although an official from the Commack school district did not return a request for comment, Port Jefferson Village Clerk Bob Juliano challenged the accusation against his department.

In an interview on Tuesday, Juliano said Reclaim New York sent his office an email on March 7, asking for 2014 information on vendors, including what the village made purchase orders for and who it made checks out to. He said he responded the same day and the village treasurer’s office is still working on compiling the information, estimating it would be done by the end of May.

“We weren’t ignoring them,” Juliano said, asserting that the two groups had not communicated since March 7 because Reclaim New York hadn’t followed up with his office.

‘It’s clear we can’t blindly trust our politicians to do their jobs with integrity and protect public dollars, so it’s up to us to watch them.’
— Brandon Muir

The village clerk noted that because Port Jefferson is currently closing out its fiscal year, that process is delaying things.

Reclaim New York started the New York Transparency Project as a response to recent public corruption cases and the state’s “affordability crisis,” according to a press release. The project’s goal is to make records requests to thousands of local governments statewide and teach taxpayers about the FOIL process.

“That’s when we will see more conflicts of interest, more political favors, more waste, more fraud and more abuse exposed,” Reclaim New York Executive Director Brandon Muir said in a statement. “Overspending and public corruption happen when politicians don’t think anyone is paying attention. … It’s time people saw how their money is really being spent.”

According to the nonprofit, it sent Freedom of Information requests about spending information to 253 entities on Long Island, 57 of which were ignored, denied or not properly completed. Although a couple of North Shore entities were included in that list, many did comply, including Suffolk County; Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington towns; Belle Terre and Lake Grove villages; and the Port Jefferson, Kings Park, Huntington, Smithtown, Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Rocky Point school districts, among others.

“There are people who really need to know that Commack and Port Jefferson have work to do, and they aren’t being open with their tax dollars,” Kellogg said in an email.

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