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Suffolk Close up: Government gets a ‘C’ for transparency

COURTESY PHOTO A Long Island journalism society has rated agencies and municipalities on open government compliance.

The Press Club of Long Island (PCLI) has conducted an unprecedented investigation into compliance by 195 governments and government agencies on Long Island with the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

Enacted in 1974, FOIL is the key state law seeking what these days is widely called “transparency” in government. It’s a state version of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act signed into law on Independence Day 1966.

FOIL declares that “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.

As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible.

The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society.””

Counties, cities, towns, villages, among other governmental entities are considered, in a legal definition, “creatures” of a state, so they must abide by the Freedom of Information statute in that state.

The investigation into how governments and government agencies on Long Island are following FOIL was conducted by journalist Tim Bolger, Freedom of Information chair for the PCLI.

It is a very mixed picture. The PCLI has issued an “Open Records Report Card” of its findings available in full online at pcli.org/open-records-report-card/.

Some governments and agencies were so exact in compliance with the FOIL that they received an A and some even an A+ by the PCLI. Some were so defiant of the FOIL that they received an F or D-.

The “Open Records Report Card” provides a detailed explanation in each case. Almost two-thirds failed to respond to requests for public records before the deadline. Records requested included payroll lists containing titles and salaries of employees and copies of policies in responding to a records request, required under FOIL.

The average grade for Long Island governments and agencies was a C. “If the Long Island governments and agencies we tested were high school students with a cumulative grade of a C, they would not be getting into the college of their choice,” commented Mr. Bolger. “Many local officials are frequently quoted touting their commitment to transparency, but what we found is that actions don’t always match the buzzwords.””

The PCLI is a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the largest journalism organization in the United States. The project was the most extensive in the history of the PCLI since it was founded in 1974.

Mr. Bolger identified himself as a member of the press (although anyone can make use of FOIL and FOIA) and his requests were mostly made via email except in the cases of agencies for which no email address could be found. In those instances, he mailed requests.

Mr. Bolger noted that the PCLI stopped short of taking nonresponsive agencies to court to ask a judge to compel them to release public documents, which is the next step under FOIL when an appeal of a records request denial is itself denied. Under FOIL, a judge can award attorney’s fees in such cases to the plaintiffs, should the case be decided in their favor. Judges sometimes order non-compliant agency staffers to take FOIL “refresher” courses conducted by the state Committee on Open Government, which also regularly publishes advisory opinions on FOIL issues brought to its attention.

Suffolk County government received a C+ in the investigation. It “scored better than Nassau” which received a D+. Both the offices of the county clerk and the clerk of the Suffolk County Legislature received an A+.

Regarding the county clerk, the “Open Records Report Card” stated that “it got a point for its response time” which is 20 days under FOIL. Similarly, for the legislature’s clerk: “ … five days after we emailed our request, we received a letter of acknowledgment via certified mail.”

On the other hand, the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council “designed to foster cooperation and improve decision-making across agencies within the county’s criminal justice system” received an F. The explanation: “We sent our request to the office, but got no reply. When we filed an appeal based on the lack of response … our appeal was denied on the grounds that we didn’t file it within 30 days …

Then, after we re-filed the request and the office again didn’t respond, we filed another appeal, this time within the deadline, but the appeal was denied a second time.”

More on the PCLI’s “Open Records Report Card,” next week including how Shelter Island and other towns and villages in Suffolk fared.