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Oyster Bay, 2 school districts, sued to disclose spending

Dennis Saffran, attorney for Reclaim New York, stands

Dennis Saffran, attorney for Reclaim New York, stands with Brandon Muir, executive director of the Reclaim New York Center for Government Reform and Accountability, files suit against Oyster Bay, Manhasset and Elmont School Districts to force compliance with transparency laws on Tuesday, June 7, 2016 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Manhattan-based nonprofit Tuesday sued the Town of Oyster Bay and the Elmont and Manhasset school districts, claiming they refused to publicly disclose how they spend taxpayer money.

Officials with Reclaim New York, which promotes government transparency, said they and their attorney have been trying for three months to convince the town and districts to release information on contracts and expenditures. But they either refused to do so or ignored the request, Reclaim New York executive director Brandon Muir said at a news conference Tuesday morning outside the state Supreme Court building in Mineola, where the group filed suit.

“People deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent,” Muir said.

The state Freedom of Information Law mandates that contracts and expenditures be made public, usually within 20 days, he said.

In March, Reclaim New York sent FOIL requests to 253 Long Island governments, the start of what the group says is an effort to “open the checkbooks” of all of the more than 3,400 local governments statewide.

As of Tuesday, 49 either ignored or denied the requests, are still in discussions to release records, or only agreed to release documents on paper, said Reclaim New York spokesman Doug Kellogg.

The Town of Hempstead wants $4,000 for paper records — an amount far beyond what most residents can pay, Muir said. Hempstead spokesman Michael Deery confirmed the $4,000 charge and said, “The Town of Hempstead complies with all of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Law.” He declined to elaborate.

Muir said any paper records are insufficient, because they don’t allow residents — or the governments themselves — to easily search through and analyze documents.

“If you can’t analyze this for me quickly, how are you analyzing your expenditures internally?” Muir asked.

Lawsuits are possible against some of the other 46 governments, he said.

The three that were sued “are among the worst if not the worst actors,” said Dennis Saffran, an attorney for Reclaim New York.

The Town of Oyster Bay released a statement that “we are working on compiling the roughly 1400 pages of information and will notify the group of its availability as soon as possible.”

Elmont Superintendent Al Harper said in a statement that “under state law, the district is not legally required to alter existing records by redaction or otherwise to respond to a FOIL request.”

He said some records aren’t in the format Reclaim New York requested. District spokeswoman Deirdre Gilligan declined to comment further.

Manhasset Supt. Charlie Cardillo said the district declined to release vendor information in part because it includes Social Security numbers and addresses, which could not be redacted “without unreasonable time and effort. We denied their request for those specific reasons, and not to avoid transparency about District expenditures.”

With Nicholas Spangler

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