Federal & State Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL), allows citizens to obtain copies of government records.
In 2009, the Buffalo News after not receiving adequate responses to several FOIL requests wrote an editorial directed to Mayor Byron Brown stating:
“The law is clear. When we request city records, you must provide them, completely and in a timely manner.
But you aren’t exactly following the law at the moment.
So, with all due respect, Mayor, cut it out”.
It is astonishing that such an editorial had to be written. In addition to giving the Buffalo News a hard time about providing public documents, the Brown administration in 2010 forced the City Council to submit FOIL requests to obtain information about the City’s Block Grant budget.
In November of 2011, former city employee Timothy Wanamaker pled guilty to using a city credit card for personal expenses totaling $30,000. Over a period of 15 months the Buffalo News filed several FOIL requests with the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation requesting Wanamaker’s travel and expense account records.
The Buffalo News never received the requested records, which is simply unacceptable. If Brown as Mayor is not going to operate city government in an open and transparent way, then the Common Council as the legislative body of the City needs to implement the following policy changes:
Strengthen the Oversight of FOIL Responsiveness – by adopting legislation to require monthly reporting to the City Council regarding the status of all FOIL requests, as well as annual reporting to the public.
Provide Training – Record Access Officers at City agencies should receive annual training on FOIL compliance, which is available at no cost through the New York State Committee on Open Government.
Ensure greater accountability- Through semi-annual reviews of each city department/agency’s FOIL compliance.
Adopt an Open Government Policy – Mandating that all City agencies must proactively publish commonly requested records online.
Engage Concerned Citizens – By forming a citizen’s advisory board dedicated to making city government more open and transparent.
In addition to policy changes by the City Council, The City Comptroller could conduct an audit of how FOIL requests are being handled. Under the City Charter, the Comptroller has the authority to conduct not only financial audits but performance audits to determine whether laws are being complied with and intended results are being achieved. A City Comptroller performance audit of FOIL requests can and should be done. A similar approach was recently undertaken in New York City by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
Non-compliance with a law whose purpose is to provide citizens information should not be tolerated. The City Council and the City Comptroller should take action to ensure that the public’s right to know is not being violated.
If government officials in your community are flaunting Freedom of Information Laws, some of the recommendations above might be helpful.