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Flap over FOIL in Hempstead

It’s unusual for an elected town board member to file an official Freedom of Information Law request about a town law that the board is asked to approve. Especially when that town board member is a Republican in Hempstead, a GOP stronghold for over a century.

But that’s what Hempstead Town Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, a Wantagh Republican, said she had to do when her questions about Supervisor Anthony Santino’s ethics reform proposal weren’t answered at last week’s town board meeting. The new law passed by a 4-3 vote; King Sweeney and Councilmembers Bruce Blakeman and Ed Ambrosino voted no.

King Sweeney this week filed a FOIL request, seeking details about when amendments to the ethics law were written and distributed to town board members.

“The questions were so simple,” King Sweeney said. “The fact that the supervisor refused to answer those simple questions during the town board meeting, I was forced to submit a FOIL. The request speaks volumes.”

On Thursday, the town acknowledged King Sweeney’s FOIL but provided no answers. “Be advised that a determination to grant or deny this request will be provided to you within 20 business day,” said the letter from the Town Clerk’s office.

Hempstead Town spokesman Michael Deery said King Sweeney received the form letter response because she filed a FOIL.

“It was her decision to file an FOI,” he said. “She should have just asked. She could have emailed or stopped into the town attorney’s office or have her staff visit the town attorney’s office. Town officials would be pleased to provide the information she’s looking for.”

But King Sweeney said, “They wouldn’t answer at the town board meeting. There was a lot of back and forth over the whole thing. If I didn’t have to submit a FOIL, why say 20 days? Why not just answer? This should not be a secret.”

Deery said, “Nobody refused to answer questions.”

But that’s not what happened at the town board meeting. After Santino said the amendments were written by his counsel, William Muller, Town Attorney Joe Ra repeatedly advised Muller to not answer any questions about them.

When asked about those refusals, Deery explained that King Sweeney and Blakeman had threatened to file a lawsuit over the ethics law. “They are not going to litigate a case in the middle of a public hearing,” he said. Deery predicted that King Sweeney would get her answers Friday afternoon.

King Sweeney said, “If I have to keep FOILING to get basic information, I will. This is not about me, this is about the residents of the district I was elected to represent.”

Democrat Laura Gillen, who is challenging Santino for supervisor this fall, said town board members will not need to submit FOIL requests if she is elected.

“I look forward to working with Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney next year to ensure that she, and every other duly elected Town of Hempstead Council member, has timely and unfettered access to critical information, regardless of political party or beliefs, so that they can do the jobs they were elected to,” said Gillen.

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