Report: Long Island public agencies fail to comply with FOIL requests

Report: Long Island public agencies fail to comply with FOIL requests

Port Jeff Village is asking residents to use the online parking sticker portal. 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.