Or isn’t it?
The question arose last week when Newsday requested a copy of a tax-refund liability chart that Nassau submitted to the comptroller’s office to be forwarded to outside auditors who prepare the county’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.
Are the chart and its contents public information?
Well, no, a county spokesman wrote in an email to Newsday’s Celeste Hadrick denying her request for a copy. “The county attorney determined these documents are privileged and to release them could put the county at risk,” according to the email.
At risk for what?
The email did not elaborate.
But let’s backtrack a bit.
Since the 1980s, Nassau — unlike Suffolk or most other municipalities in New York State — has been burdened with the obligation to refund, with interest, taxes paid by property owners who appeal and win their assessments.
For decades, the county bonded that obligation — leaving it to future property owners to pay it off — until a financial control board began insisting that Nassau use operating funds to satisfy at least some of the debt.
The cost of those refunds consistently has helped hobble the county’s ability to balance its budget.
And yet, according to the denial received by Hadrick, the administration of County Executive Laura Curran determined that the release of a tax-refund-liability chart — that is, details of how much Nassau, and by extension taxpayers, potentially owe in refunds — would “put the county at risk.”
There is a larger issue at play as well — whether the Curran administration intends to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, former County Executive Edward Mangano, by stalling release of public information.
Two years ago, Hadrick put in a Freedom of Information Law request for the same information from Mangano’s administration, which habitually responded late to requests for public records. Under the law, a request is supposed to be acknowledged within five days.
But the Republican Mangano administration frequently responded not just later than that — but with an email saying it would take 20 days more to determine whether the requested records exist and are available for release under FOIL.
Curran, a Democrat who was swept into office on a platform of fighting corruption and instilling transparency in government, last week followed the Mangano model of responding to Hadrick’s request.
But with a twist.
The administration ended up releasing the chart on Thursday.
Later the same day came an email saying the request for release had been denied.
Despite the case of crossed-communication wires, last week’s release of public information was — as always — the right move.
In 2016, Curran, then a Nassau County legislator, criticized the Mangano administration for challenging information contained in a chart that detailed the county’s 2015 tax-refund liability.
The chart — and yes, it was the same one both administrations initially tried to deny Newsday — said the county potentially owed tens of millions of dollars. The Mangano administration, however, had been insisting that the potential liability was closer to zero.
Curran back then criticized the administration, saying, “It looks like they’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes by saying the problem is fixed when certainly it’s not fixed ... and that erodes trust in government.”
So does slow-walking public information requests — for public information.