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Reclaim New York

A view of the main page of a piece of Reclaim NY’s Transparency Project. Image from ReclaimNY website

Transparency and honesty play a major role in healthy democracies, and now New York State municipalities will have a watchdog tracking their effectiveness, providing feedback publicly to concerned citizens, by concerned citizens.

Last week, Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to “educate New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency and education,” launched a website designed to rate government accessibility and transparency based on an index of recommendations.

The site is part of the group’s New York Transparency Project, an initiative launched in 2016, which kicked off with 2,500 Freedom of Information Law requests for basic expenditure information to county, town and village governments, as well as school districts across Long Island and the state.

“This is an accountability tool,” Reclaim New York Communications Director Doug Kellogg said. “Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

The new system allows citizens to grade local governments based on 29 indicators, including whether contracts are posted on the internet, there’s access to expenditure records, notices of meetings and the minutes to the meetings are available and contact information is listed for elected officials. The municipalities will receive an overall, objective grade. The grade will indicate which are transparent and law-abiding, as budget information and records access officers need to be publicly available.

“Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

— Doug Kellogg

“Citizens can hold their governments accountable at every level if they have the right tools for the job,” executive director for the organization Brandon Muir said in a statement. “This is a truly unprecedented moment for New Yorkers who want to reclaim ownership of their government. Working with this new site they can make proactive transparency a reality.”

To input data, users must register with an email address. When data is put into the system, it is vetted and sited prior to going live to avoid a “wild west” feel, according to Kellogg. The process of imputing data to extract a rating for municipalities has only just begun. Kellogg said it will take time to have an all-encompassing collection of information.

In May 2016, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district failed to comply with FOIL requests as part of the organization’s Transparency Project.

New York’s FOIL requires governments and school districts respond to records requests within five business days, whether with the information requested, a denial or an acknowledgement of the request. The response needs to include an estimated date when one of the latter two will occur. Denials can be appealed but  not allowed “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, and after the findings were released, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district eventually complied with the requests.

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.

To become an evaluator for the website or to view data, visit www.reclaimnewyork.org and click on the Transparency tab.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is searching for ways to improve the county's financial outlook. File photo by Alex Petroski

Suffolk County’s current and future financial outlook has been a topic of conversation for months, and a nonprofit founded to ensure government transparency is taking notice, following County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D-West Babylon) presentation to the state Senate and Assembly representatives in Albany Feb. 14.

Bellone visited the capital last week to discuss Suffolk’s “daunting” fiscal challenges going forward. Among his eight points addressed during the presentation was a request for authority from New York State to obtain bonds for separation pay of law enforcement officers for 2017 and 2018, a point of contention raised repeatedly by Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to “educate New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency and education,” echoed a similar sentiment to Trotta’s following the presentation.

“Suffolk County has a problem: it spends too much on its police department,” a Feb. 15 post on the organization’s blog said in part. “Its 2,397 officers were paid an average of $161,463 last year, far more than any other county, or town police officers, or Nassau County’s police, for that matter. Spending reached this level after years of political action by the police, who spent in 2015 more than $600,000 influencing local elections–from one PAC alone. Now, having fallen behind on those expenses … Bellone is proposing borrowing $60 million because the county doesn’t have enough cash for payouts on unused sick and vacation time, that Suffolk cops were promised years ago.”

Doug Kellogg, the organization’s communications director, said in a phone interview Reclaim New York doesn’t currently have plans to begin a project or campaign pertaining specifically to the police contract, which the county and the Police Benevolent Association agreed on and which runs from 2011 to 2018, but they do plan on monitoring Suffolk’s budget and financial outlook going forward.

“It’s really starting to get out of control,” Kellogg said. “The path can get worse.”

Trotta has said in past interviews he feels like he’s alone in calling out the county’s financial situation relating to the police department contract.

“The county finances are in total shambles,” Trotta said during an interview in his Smithtown office Nov. 15. “[The other legislators are] sticking their head in the sand. They’re not addressing the real problems. No one wants to address the problems. You need colossal change.”

Following the meeting, Trotta said it was “typical” of Bellone to ask to borrow to pay for the retirement pay for police officers. He added he’s been in contact with Reclaim New York and plans to work with them to inform the public about the county’s finances.

“I’m going to work with them because together we could get the word out to the public on how bad it really is,” Trotta said in a phone interview. “The title says it all — we need to take back New York.”

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for Bellone, said in a phone interview the request regarding bonds for separation pay was just a small part of his presentation, but if obtained the funds would improve public safety.

“In the future we’ll be able to hire more police officers to ensure our county is safe,” she said.

Bellone’s presentation also included a justification for borrowing to close the budget gap.

“Allowing for this five-year bonding will allow Suffolk County to protect taxpayers and public safety by smoothing out the expense associated with an anticipated increase in retirements,” he said. “Bonding will allow Suffolk County to retain the resources and fiscal flexibility to continue to hire new officers, which is critical to maintain public safety and save taxpayer dollars over several years.”

A look at the county budget by the legislature’s budget review office in October resulted in a warning.

“The county’s structural deficit is increasingly driving our decisions,” the office’s director Robert Lipp said in the review. “The county sets a bad precedent when paying for operating expenses with borrowing.”

Reclaim NY is requesting various public documents from governments and school districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties, including Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district. File photo by Elana Glowatz

By Brandon Muir

Long Islanders deserve better than excuses from politicians, and bureaucrats. It’s time they took the lead on making government more open. That’s why Reclaim New York launched our transparency project.

Using the Freedom of Information Law to open spending records from governments across Long Island is the first step toward ensuring all citizens can hold their local government accountable.

This effort may ruffle some feathers. It seems this happened with Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant. Rather than just fixing Port Jefferson’s FOIL failures, we saw a smoke screen.

On March 7, we filed a FOIL request for the 2014 village expenditures, since this public record is not posted on the village website. We intend to share this information publicly to empower citizen-driven oversight of government.

The documents did not arrive.

Excuses don’t make up for not following the law’s timelines, or completing a FOIL request late. The law provides for extensions; a government simply has to ask for it. When this doesn’t happen, the FOIL is considered denied.

The mayor recently claimed we never filed an appeal and didn’t reach out to the village. Both statements are incorrect. The appeal is documented, and was sent on April 11, to the mayor’s own address, exactly as Port Jefferson asked.

We simply followed the law, as anyone can see at our transparency project portal: NYtransparency.org. If the mayor does not like FOIL’s requirements, she should attack the law, not Reclaim New York.

To be clear, the village has now sent the records. But more than 75 percent of Long Island localities fulfilled their legal obligations on time. We’d like to work with the village to improve their transparency process.

Here’s how we can make that happen: The village can post the names and contact information for the Records Access Officer, and Records Appeals Officer online. These designations are required by law, and this would clear up confusion.

When a FOIL request is denied, or ignored — as in this case — the law allows for an appeal, sent to the Appeals Officer.

If the village says the mayor fills this role, and tells a FOIL filer to use a particular email address to submit an appeal to her, the mayor should not publicly claim she hasn’t received an appeal and blame it on the sender.

Additionally, ensure village employees understand the time limits for FOIL requests.

The first response, within five days, should acknowledge receipt and indicate when the request will be completed. If you need more time, request an extension.

In the initial response to Reclaim New York, the village said they would outline production costs for fulfilling the FOIL request. Then they stopped responding to our requests without providing a clear timeline.

It’s important to note that it’s not the filer’s responsibility to follow up with calls, though in this case Reclaim New York did. But the law does require that a village respond within 10 business days to an appeal.

The ultimate transparency goal for any government: proactively posting information in a searchable format online.

Every citizen should be able to see how government is spending public money. There’s no need to wait for someone to ask. Provide this information openly, and Port Jefferson will truly be leading the way toward open government.

Brandon Muir is the executive director for Reclaim New York.

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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A Reclaim New York study suggests that it is increasingly difficult to afford living on the Island. File photo

By Brandon Muir

Long Island is a place that should be synonymous with thriving families, beaches, and the best New York has to offer. However, as more people and businesses struggle to stay here, it has become, unfortunately, just as associated with high taxes, a stagnant economy, debt, and public corruption.

It’s no mystery to Long Islanders that the region has struggled. They read the headlines about population decline, while they watch their neighbors move south. As they work to make ends meet, they may not realize they are fighting an uphill battle against a deep and widespread affordability crisis that has consequences for virtually every household.

Long Islanders are paying the price for high taxation, endless regulation, and corruption that drive the cost of government sky-high.

A new study by Reclaim New York provides the most alarming evidence yet that recent graduates, middle-class families, and even people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year are struggling to achieve financial stability and save for the future.

The analysis has computed Long Islanders’ total tax burden, including income, sales, excise, and property taxes, together with basic living expenses — what you have to pay just to wake up every morning on Long Island.

The results show that wherever you live, across Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the affordability crisis follows.

For instance, the median family of four living in Huntington school district earns over $118,000 annually. Even by New York standards, that should make for a comfortable living.

But after government and basic expenses take a bite out of their wallet, they are left with four percent of their income.

Across the Island, in Port Jefferson, the situation is similar, yet somehow worse. A family earning the median income there goes into the red, losing $2,855 per year.

That is before they pay off debts, save for college or retirement, and cover additional expenses. Even if they cut back on basics, they are not close to building a future.

Analysis of a range of other cases, across regions and income spectrums, reveals more trends. Like why the boomerang effect is so prominent on Long Island.

Many young people are barely in the black, and too frequently in the red, if living on their own.

A recent college graduate in Lake Ronkonkoma (Sachem School District), fortunate enough to get a job in his area of study, making $48,707 annually, can only save two percent of that, or $955. That’s before any student loan payments.

It’s going to be hard to enjoy a night out too often, let alone buy a house or get married.

For the people across all these examples, New York costs 90 percent or more of their income.

When tax policies are preventing earners high and low from building financial stability, they’re no longer progressive, but simply oppressive.

This is the iceberg that is sinking Long Island. If people can’t save, they will never be on sound financial footing, especially as they get older.

An affordability and savings crisis this deep requires citizens to get informed and engaged. The key to solving it will not be figuring out better policies on paper, but changing an environment that has fostered failed policies for too long.

Brandon Muir is executive director for Reclaim New York, a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing a state-wide, grassroots conversation about the future of New York, its economy, and its people.