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Transparency

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner is up against Coram resident Democrat Mike Goodman to represent the 2nd Council District Nov. 7. Photos by Kevin Redding

Coram resident Mike Goodman is running against incumbent Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) because he said he thinks he could bring positive changes to the town — ones that will streamline services, create more jobs, keep young folks on Long Island and make transparency changes with lasting effects.

An English major from St. Joseph’s College, who also studied religion and computer science, the Democrat challenger said he takes major issue with the lack of job creation and affordable housing in the town.

Flooding in Rocky Point has been a cause for concern in relation to sewers on the North Shore. File photo from Sara Wainwright

“My brother is a recent graduate, he’s a really smart, great, hard-working guy and it’s hard for him to find a place to live here, and I’ve seen all my friends leave for the same reason,” he said. “I want to put a stop to the brain drain. There are a lot of companies that don’t come here because it takes so long to deal with the bureaucracy of the town. I’m personally affected by a lot of these problems.”

Bonner, who is running for her sixth term at the helm of the 2nd Council District, said during a debate at the TBR News Media office in October she didn’t know if it’s her 27-year-old opponent’s age or inexperience but he lacks knowledge of affordable housing issues.

“To say you want more affordable housing, it’s a lofty and noble goal, it just has to make sense where you put it,” she said.

She also pointed out the flaws in fulfilling some of her opponent’s goals in her district, specifically constructing walkable downtowns and affordable housing complexes.

Coram resident Mike Goodman is running for political office for the first time. Photo by Kevin Redding

“Sewers are very expensive and with that, developers are going to want density,” she said. “Density doesn’t work if you don’t have mass transportation to have these walkable downtowns, to have trains and expanded bus system, but also the county cut the bus system in the districts that I represent and the current legislator wrote a letter to not bring sewers to Rocky Point and Sound Beach. We don’t have expanded gas lines in Rocky Point either, and the seniors in the leisure communities are struggling with getting heat. As the closest level of government to the people that’s responsible for the least amount of your tax bill, we are great advocates to other levels of government to help the residents out because we’re the ones that end up cleaning up the mess.”

Goodman also suggested more housing attractive in price and environment to millennials, and Bonner pointed to the current project proposed for the site next to King Kullen in Mount Sinai, but also pointed to issues with affordable housing.

Stimulating job creation was a goal raised by both candidates.

Bonner said 500,000 positions could be created if Brookhaven wins the bid to bring an Amazon headquarters to the Calabro Airport in Mastic and the site of former Dowling College.

“Something that takes 45 days to get cleared with any other town takes two years to do here,” Goodman said in response. “I don’t think Amazon of all companies wants to deal with a town that’s bragging about recently getting computers. If we want to deal with the tech sector, if we want to have good paying jobs in manufacturing or technology, instead of the more and more retail I see happening, we need to attract big businesses here, and that happens by streamlining bureaucracy.”

Millennial housing was a topic for discussion, which there are plans to construct in Mount Sinai. Image top right from Basser Kaufman

The Newfield High School graduate pointed to his software development background at Hauppauge-based Globegistics, and side business building websites and fixing computers, as evidence of his abilities to cut administrative “red tape.”

“I would like a publicly-facing forum,” he said, referring to a ticketing system like JIRA, a highly customizable issue-management tracking platform. “Everyone can see all of the issues that have been called into the town, who in the town is working on it, how long it will take to get done and what it’s going to cost. I think town contracts should be made public so people can see who is getting the work done and how much they’re being paid, so people aren’t just getting family members jobs.”

Bonner emphasized many of hers and the town’s efforts in streamlining services, managing land use and implementation of technology, but also noted her and her colleagues’ desire for transparency.

“I think it is an overused expression, because I don’t know any person I work with on any level of government that doesn’t advocate for transparency; gone are the days of Crookhaven,” she said. “We’ve become more user-friendly, we aren’t as archaic as we used to be.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner is seeking her sixth term. Photo by Kevin Redding

Bonner has a long list of accomplishments she said she’s proud of playing a part in during her 12 years on the board. Bringing single-stream recycling to her constituents; refurbishing and redoing most of the parks and marinas; and working on a land use plan for the solar farm at the old golf course grounds in Shoreham that will generate about $1 million in PILOT payments for 20 years were some of the examples she noted.

She said she is also looking forward to improving handicap accessibility at town parks.

“When you’re walking in a particular park you see maybe a park needs a handicap swing and think about where in the budget you can get the money for it,” Bonner said. “The longer you’re at it there’s good things you get to do, they’re very gratifying.”

Goodman said he’s hoping to just create a better Brookhaven for the future.

“I’m running to make the town I’ve always lived in better, and not just better now, but better 10, 20 years from now,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of things that can be done better, I want to do the work and I think I’m qualified to do the work.”

The current councilwoman said she hopes to continue to improve and build on the things already accomplished.

“The longer you serve, the more layers you can peel back in the onion and you see problems that need to be solved,” Bonner said. “With length of service you can really get to the root of the problem, solve it significantly and hopefully, permanently.”

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.