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Nassau County drops claim reassessment formula was 'trade secret'

A sign for assessment information is pictured at

A sign for assessment information is pictured at the Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola on Oct. 3, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

Nassau has dropped its claim that the computer formula used to develop new home values for the county’s reassessment is exempt from disclosure because it is a “trade secret,” court records show.

Instead, the county said Nassau officials misunderstood Lynbrook homeowner Dennis Duffy when they repeatedly denied his Freedom of Information Law requests for the algorithm used to develop his home's new assessment.

County attorneys also said in court papers filed late last month they were providing Duffy with the computer codes “by which all of the preliminary assessments were established.”

But Duffy and others critical of the reassessment said Tuesday the documents provided by the county do not satisfy his request.

“The county dumped over 200 pages of, to me, indecipherable computer code,” Duffy said. The county provided the codes in a printed pdf format, rather than a computer file, he said, preventing him from using diagnostic tools to determine how the assessments were prepared.

“It’s a disgrace that the county is hiding behind 200 pages of computer code in their attempt to make sure homeowners have no way of understanding how their homes are assessed,” Duffy said.

Referring to the thousands of meetings homeowners have had with assessment staff after the new values were issued, Duffy said, “The county has proven that they told us the truth: 'We don’t know how we assessed your house. It’s all in the computer.'”

Duffy filed suit in State Supreme Court in Mineola in April to force County Executive Laura Curran and Assessor David Moog to reveal the algorithm.

Initially, the county called the formula “interagency or intraagency materials” that were exempt from disclosure. When Duffy appealed, the county said the formula was a trade secret because it was embedded in the software of a consultant hired for the reassessment.

At Duffy’s request, the state’s open government committee issued an opinion that Nassau should not be permitted to claim trade secret status because the algorithm was used to make important government decisions.

In response to Duffy’s lawsuit, Deputy County Attorney Andrew Scott wrote, “It appears that there was either some misconceptions or misunderstandings” about Duffy’s FOIL.

“Just so the record is clear, the documents provided with this response are the actual codes … Stated differently, they are the algorithms for the reassessment,” Scott said.

Curran spokeswoman Justine DiGiglio added in a statement Tuesday, “Mr. Duffy’s FOIL was for the formula used to determine new market values. The formula he requested is computer code and that is what was provided.” She said Nassau maintains there are “vendor trade secrets,” but the codes were “not part of the vendor’s intellectual property.”

Since the county produced the requested information, Scott asked Justice Stephen Bucaria, who is hearing the case, to dismiss Duffy’s complaint. Scott also argued against awarding legal fees to the nonprofit Government Justice Center, which represented Duffy without charge, saying the county “had a reasonable basis for denying the FOIL request.”

But Cameron Macdonald, the center’s executive director, responded in court papers last week, “Persons whose FOIL requests are improperly denied by an inconsistent and evasive agency should not be required to bear the expense of filing and attorney’s fees to bring lawsuits to obtain public records.”

Macdonald also noted, “The county never indicated that it did not understand what records petitioner requested.”

Bucaria has not ruled on the motions.

Duffy and Hempstead Tax Receiver Don Clavin, a Republican running for town supervisor this fall, said separately Tuesday they were looking for computer experts to translate the codes. Clavin had hosted Duffy at a news conference earlier this year.

At a news conference with Nassau County Legis. William Gaylor (R-Lynbrook), Clavin said the county released the requested codes after the deadline for filing appeals.

“This is nothing but a stall tactic and a slap in the face to residents — 239 pages of computer formula typed out and sent,” Clavin said.

The town has posted a link to the pdf, “asking residents, if you’re a computer analyst, take a look at it,” Clavin said.

Gaylor said, “I’d like to make a bet with the county executive. I bet $1 she can’t explain what this formula means in terms of what went into determining how properties were reassessed. It’s a simple challenge. Let's see if  she can step up and answer the question.”

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