Government transparency advocates push more disclosure requirements in Albany


Transparency advocates are pushing two new bills in Albany that would make government records in New York more accessible to the public.

One of the bills would require agencies to report all records requests, while the other would reduce the time they have to respond to requests.

“Right now, you can get endless extensions from agencies, when in the end they may just deny your request, and you’ve been waiting for six months, a year or even more,” said Rachel Fauss, a policy adviser for good-government group Reinvent Albany, in a phone interview.

The legislation would bar agencies from taking more than 60 days to fulfill requests for records and require any denials to be rendered within 30 days after a request is made.

The second proposal would require the government to report how quickly state agencies respond to requests. New York’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, is meant to empower members of the public to access documents that could shed light on how agencies are performing and taxpayer dollars are being spent. The law also mandates timely access to public records, though agencies routinely claim exemptions to disclosure and push back the dates by when they say they will answer requests.

Fauss said the bills would apply to all governments in New York, including small villages, fire departments and water districts.

“The compliance rates at the local level are actually quite bad,” she said. “Often, FOIL requests are ignored altogether at the local level.”

New York’s Association of Towns did not respond to requests for comment about the proposals, which the state Legislature is still considering.

Avi Small, a spokesperson for Gov. Kathy Hochul, wrote in an email that the governor would review the legislation if it passes both the state Senate and Assembly.

The bills join two others that were approved by the state Senate last year but not taken up by the Assembly. Those measures would allow requesters to more easily recoup attorney fees in lawsuits to obtain public records and would limit exemptions related to business records held by the government.

A diverse coalition of more than 30 nonprofit and civic organizations sent Hochul and state legislative leaders a letter this week expressing support for all four bills.

The coalition’s push comes as state lawmakers in New Jersey are weighing measures to limit the public’s access to government records.

New Jersey state Sen. Paul Sarlo and Assemblymember Joe Danielsen, both Democrats, want to change the state’s decades-old Open Public Records Act, or OPRA, to make it more difficult for citizens and media outlets to access records.

Their proposal would let agencies deny requests made by residents who submit so many that officials deem them nuisances. That provision recalls the case of an 82-year-old woman Irvington Township sued for submitting 75 requests over three years, claiming she sought to intimidate and harass public officials. Irvington ultimately dropped that case last year.

The bill would bar data brokers from obtaining public records, make “draft” documents produced by government agencies private, and let governments redact more information from documents before releasing them.

It would also eliminate a requirement that the losing party pay attorney fees in any lawsuit over records that a government agency failed to provide. This fee-shifting provision in the current OPRA law has been a powerful tool for residents and small news publications who can’t otherwise afford to take government agencies to court.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently told WNYC he supports changes to the current law.

Michael Hayes contributed reporting.



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