Sunday, August 13, 2006

Don't Be FOILed . . .

What is it that government in the Utica - Oneida County area doesn't get? Government is there to serve (and is owned by) the public, so the public has a right to see its documents. But our local governments act like private clubs and apparently think otherwise. The latest example was this past week involving the Utica School Board's denial of records to the Observer-Dispatch on after-school programs.

The state's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) has been on the books for many years. It should not be too much to expect Superintendent Skermont, who is paid well to know these things, to understand what the school district's obligations are under FOIL. And there simply would be no excuse if the School Board attorney did not know how the process should work.

In a nutshell, THE PUBLIC IS ENTITLED TO SEE ALL RECORDS HELD BY THE GOVERNMENT, unless it can point to a specific exemption in the FOIL (listed under §87 subdivision (2)) that allows a particular kind of record to be withheld. If a document is withheld, the person requesting the document is to be told (1) what the document is and (2) the provision of the law under which it is being withheld.

The response from the Utica School District is insufficient. The response also does something that is all too common in government responses to FOIL requests: it implies that one must pay $0.25 per page to access the documents. This is misleading. The charge is allowed for a COPY of the document. You pay nothing TO INSPECT the document (with, perhaps, the rare exception where a redacted copy must be prepared in order to make the disclosure). Government agencies are not permitted to charge for their time to gather and assemble the documents. (Remember, the Government, and its documents, belong to you).

Fault Lines' tip for FOIL inspections: bring a digital camera, and photograph the documents. Photography has already been determined to be "an inspection" under FOIL by the Committee on Open Government. Use the "macro" setting and practice at home with newspapers or magazines before making your inspection.

Don't be FOILed. Know your rights. The Committee on Open Government is responsible for overseeing and advising regarding FOIL and has a wealth of information on its website, including advisory opinions describing a variety of situations, its regulations, and a "FAQ" sheet.

Something for Government Officials to remember: The FOIL specifies those documents that may be withheld - - it does not require them to be withheld. In yesterday's O-D article, Mr. LaPolla got it right:

" "Just because information is not FOIL-able, it does not mean we should not provide information to taxpayers regarding the Laino case," LaPolla said. "When you're dealing with public money, whether it be tax dollars, federal grants or state grants, everyone who receives that money must be accountable." "

Isn't it interesting that a majority of school board members talk like they want full disclosure, yet the documents are still not disclosed? Ms. Ebbeling did a nice job of reporting!


Anonymous said...

If your going to an agency to do a FOIL inspection, you can either bring your own photocopier or a scanner to get copies of records. It's just needs to be small enough to carry in easily, and most agencies will let you plug a copier in when you come.

That's a lot cheaper then paying 25¢ a page, and provides higher quality results then a digital camera.

People do this all the time at the DEC, and a scanner or a small copier is something that every activist group or interested person should have when inspecting documents.

Strikeslip said...

NYCowboy -- Yes, a scanner or personal copier is definitely allowed and would produce the highest quality reproductions. I like the digital camera myself because it's quick, easy to carry in my pocket, and I can easily manage the images on my computer. I usually photo EVERYTHING and then read the images at home. The images are then available for posting on the internet if the situation arises. Sometimes I do have to go back and rephoto something that comes out fuzzy. Either way, it sure beats the 25 cents per page. I figure my camera has already paid for itself 4-5 times in what I've saved.