Newsday reporter seeking Oyster Bay public records escorted out by cop
A Nassau County police officer escorted a Newsday reporter out of Oyster Bay Town offices Monday after the reporter requested records from the town's zoning board of appeals.
The police officer told reporter Ted Phillips that he was responding to a call about a "disturbance" and led Phillips out of the building. No charges were filed against Phillips.
The records the reporter requested are meeting minutes, available to the public, concerning appeals to the town's zoning board for variances from town code.
Oyster Bay spokesman Brian Devine emailed a statement that said police were called "because the reporter conducted himself in a disorderly and disruptive manner. This was not the first time that he has engaged in such inappropriate and unprofessional behavior."
Newsday Editor Deborah Henley said Phillips was "doing his job professionally, as he and his colleagues have throughout this year with reporting that has raised important issues involving Oyster Bay Town officials and government. We are very concerned that while requesting information that should be made public, he was escorted out of a public town building by police. We will continue to strenuously fight for public access of public records on behalf of our readers and the community."
Oyster Bay Town has been at the center of a controversy regarding the town's relationship with Long Island restaurateur Harendra Singh. Last month, federal authorities indicted Singh on charges that included bribing a then-Oyster Bay employee in exchange for the town's guarantee of $20 million in loans for two businesses that provide food concessions. Singh has pleaded not guilty.
Phillips had sent an email to Town Clerk James Altadonna Jr. requesting access to the ZBA minutes. Altadonna referred him to the ZBA office across the street from Town Hall, on Audrey Avenue.
There, a ZBA staffer told Phillips he would have to order the minutes from an outside stenographer and that the company required payment for transcription. When Phillips responded that state law required the town to make the records available, the staffer said she didn't have the minutes, Phillips said.
Under state law, a municipal board is required to prepare minutes and disclose them upon request within two weeks of a meeting, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
A ZBA supervisor then told Phillips he would have to file a Freedom of Information request in order to view the minutes. She offered to let him speak to an administrator about the matter, and Phillips accepted, he said.
"I was in the ZBA office for about three minutes," Phillips said. "I was firm about the law, but the conversation was cordial."
As the town employee led Phillips to the offices of Commissioner of Planning and Development Frederick Ippolito and his deputy, Diana Aquiar, two town public safety officers asked the ZBA supervisor whom they had been called about. She said she didn't know, and she and Phillips entered the waiting room for Ippolito's office, Phillips said.
Aquiar then came out and told Phillips that public safety officers would be "showing you out," according to Phillips' audio recording of the conversation. When Phillips responded that he had a legal right to look at the minutes, Aquiar said, "Well, they're not going to waste their time right now putting that together for you."
Aquiar said the minutes were publicly available, "but they are not available to you at this moment. So please leave with these public safety officers." Phillips responded that he had a right to be there and sat there a half-hour while trying to contact Newsday's lawyer. A Nassau police officer, whom Phillips described as courteous and professional, arrived and escorted Phillips from the building.