Freedom of Information Bill Passes Legislature, More Open Government Needed

By Assemblyman Will Barclay
The Legislature recently passed a bill that, if signed by the Governor, would reform the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and expedite the process for those in search of public records.

The measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the Senate and the Assembly.

I am urging the Governor to sign the bill into law and make this change effective immediately.

Its unanimous passage shows there is overwhelming public support for a more open government.

Any legislation that cuts through the many layers of bureaucracy the public has to deal with in order to get public information is good legislation.

Anyone can file a FOIL request and each request is evaluated on a case by case basis.

If the information request is denied, the entity or individual pursuing the FOIL request can take it to court to argue that the agency should provide the records.

If the court rules in favor of the request, the agency, under current law, can drag its feet and take up to 9 months to perfect an appeal to that decision.

The bill that was recently passed in the legislature (A.114) shortens that time and, instead, requires the agency to file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the court’s decision and if the agency does not perfect the appeal within 60 days of the notice of appeal, the appeal will be considered abandoned.

In layman’s terms, the legislation drops the appeals process from potentially 9 months to 3 months.

This will cut down on litigation expenses and provide a more timely resolution of a FOIL request.

For the average person, and many media companies, if a request is denied, the pursuit for public documents unfortunately ends there because it takes time and money to follow a legal course of action.

For example, the Post Star, a Glens Falls newspaper, was denied a request for the number of arrests made statewide for violations of the SAFE Act.

Arrest records are public information, but when faced with the expense involved with a legal battle, the newspaper reported it had no choice but to accept the denial.

The State’s refusal to provide the information makes one suspicious that the SAFE Act is having little effect on making our streets safer or that it is addressing a danger that its proponents, including the Governor, insisted needed to be addressed by the passage of the SAFE Act.

Unfortunately, without being able to obtain arrest records, the public cannot judge for itself.

The bottom line is that state agencies are allowed to drag their feet under the current law.

There is no need for a state agency to take nine months to appeal an adverse FOIL decision other than letting the process come to a virtual halt.

Currently, there is a story that I and many others are following about the pursuit for documents that detail how the Buffalo Billion is being spent.

One agency managing the work has refused to provide documents detailing expenditures.

The state’s Committee on Open Government director disagrees with this decision and believes they should be made public.

It is cases like these and many others that do not make it to the media’s spotlight, that would be helped by passing laws in favor of more open government.

The legislation recently passed is a step towards more open government.

If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.

My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.

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