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Oyster Bay town clerk: Responses to information requests may not be accurate

Oyster Bay's Town Attorney Joseph Nocella and Town

Oyster Bay's Town Attorney Joseph Nocella and Town Clerk James Altadonna Jr. at the town board meeting. Credit: Composite Photo; Howard Schnapp, left, and Jessica Rotkiewicz

Oyster Bay Town Clerk James Altadonna Jr. has said he cannot guarantee the completeness and accuracy in responding to information requests that first go to the town attorney's office instead of his.

Not allowing the town clerk to review the original documents may be a violation of state laws and regulations that make the clerk the legal custodian of town records and require the clerk to coordinate responses to Freedom of Information Law requests, according to the state's open government director. 

“I am prevented from certifying that I have seen all of the original documents,” Altadonna said. “On FOIL requests that go through town attorney, it prevents me from doing my job because I cannot verify the chain of custody.”

Town residents, businesses, political candidates, the media and others routinely file such information requests to obtain documents and records that are not otherwise publicly available. 

State Committee on Open Government executive director Robert Freeman said preventing the town clerk from exercising his statutory authority regarding records access and FOIL responses "would be a failure to comply with law."

On May 23, Freeman gave a court-ordered hour-and-a-half training session to Oyster Bay officials and employees regarding FOIL and Open Meetings Law. During that training Freeman said Altadonna as the town clerk and records access officer had to coordinate the town’s responses to information inquiries.

Even if the records aren't in the clerk's office, he has "legal custody" of them, Freeman said at the training session.

"You're supposed to cooperate with him ... whether or not you want to disclose the record," he told Oyster Bay officials. "Your desire really doesn't matter very much.”

Freeman said while town officials may offer guidance about the effects of disclosure, “it's his [the town clerk's] determination as records access officer to figure out what's public and what's not.”

Altadonna said that in at least 27 of the more than 3,000 FOIL requests submitted to the town in the past 22 months, town documents were diverted to the town attorney’s office for review rather than being sent directly to the clerk’s office. They included information requests from Newsday, News 12 Long Island and Robert Freier, a former Democratic candidate for town board.

Earlier this month, a state judge ordered Altadonna to sign a letter stating the town had responded to a FOIL request from Robert Ripp, a former candidate for town supervisor. Altadonna refused to sign the letter drafted by the town attorney’s office.

Town Attorney Joseph Nocella, speaking before the town board last week, said he initially believed Altadonna’s refusal to sign the letter brought him into conflict with the town. Nocella, who attended Freeman’s training session, did not respond to requests for comment.

Altadonna drafted a letter himself, to be responsive to the judge’s order, that said he “makes no representation or warranty that the departments’ or the Town Attorney’s office production is full, complete, and/or an accurate reproduction of their files.” That language will be included in future FOIL responses that are diverted to the town attorney's office, Altadonna said.

Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino last week declined to take a position on which office should review documents first.

“This was a misunderstanding between the town clerk and the town attorney and I’ve asked them to work it out,” Saladino said.

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