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.