Column: Town government just passes transparency test
The Town of Shelter Island: C-minus. The Village of Dering Harbor: A-plus.
Those are the scores of the town and village in the extraordinary investigation conducted by the Press Club of Long Island (PCLI) on compliance with the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) by 195 Long Island governments and agencies.
“We emailed our request in two parts to the town clerk [of Shelter Island]. The town scored points for emailing its board meeting minutes and agendas three business days after we made that request, but lost a half point for its response time because the 20-day deadline expired before it acknowledged the request of the rest of the documents,” stated the “Open Records Report Card” issued by PCLI.
“After we followed up, the town emailed its payroll list,” the report card continued. “It lost a point after we had to follow up twice to fulfill that part of the request. The town lost a point for not maintaining a subject matter listing. It lost a half point for not providing a written FOIL policy, which we later found in the town code. It got a point in the helpfulness category for sending its meeting agendas that it’s not required to maintain as well as for having information on its website on how to file a FOIL request.”
The other East End towns, Southampton, Riverhead and Southold were graded A-plus. East Hampton received a B-minus.
FOIL, enacted in 1974, is the main state law protecting what these days is termed “transparency” in government. It’s a state version of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was signed into law in 1966.
Counties, cities, towns, villages, among other governmental entities, are legally considered “creatures” of a state and must abide by the Freedom of Information statute in that state. The probe of how governments and government agencies on Long Island are following FOIL was conducted by journalist Tim Bolger for PCLI.
As for Dering Harbor, “Two business days after we emailed our request, the village clerk replied to acknowledge it and ask that we re-submit the FOIL on a village form. The clerk responded within the 20-day deadline, earning a point for response time.
“The village got points for emailing its payroll list, FOIL policy, board meeting minutes and subject matter listing,” the report went on. “In the helpfulness category, it got a point for its speedy reply and providing its board meeting agendas that it isn’t required to maintain, but a point was deducted for asking why we filed the request. It’s one of the few villages … that did not have its own website at the time we filed our request, although it since contracted to build one.”
The village of Greenport received a C. “A month after we emailed our request, the village clerk emailed an acknowledgement with an estimate on when we’d receive the documents,” said the report card. There was a follow-up by PCLI asking for comments on the ratings of all the governments and government agencies and Mayor George Hubbard Jr. of Greenport said: “I will be bringing this up for discussion at our next work session. Thank you for your work to hold government accountable.”
The village of Sag Harbor got a C. “The village scored points for emailing its payroll list and board meeting minutes … It also lost a point for its response time since the request wasn’t fulfilled until after the 20-day deadline. It lost another point for not providing a written FOIL policy.”
The average grade for Long Island governments and agencies was a C. Suffolk County government received a C-plus in the investigation.
How do you earn an A-plus? Just look to Southold, which “was the only town to have an online FOIL submission tool on its website,” the PCLI report states. “We sent our request in two parts to the town clerk. The town supplied its board meeting minutes on the same day we requested them and acknowledged the other request within three business days.
One business day after that, the town scored points for emailing its payroll list, FOIL policy and subject matter listing. It got a point in the helpfulness category for having information on its website on how to file a FOIL request.”
On a personal note: I am proud of this investigation by PCLI. In 1974, I led the founding of the press club, now one of the biggest chapters in the national Society of Professional Journalists, and was its first president. I moved to help form the chapter after reading an article about a reporter jailed for not divulging a source.
I thought there was a need for the excellent journalists on Long Island to get together in the cause of freedom of the press and the media’s role to watchdog power. A sterling example of this is the FOIL investigation by PCLI.