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Brandon Muir

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.

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.

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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.