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Cuomo, Legislature OK law to strengthen public records law

ALBANY — A measure signed into law Wednesday will provide more leverage to the public in obtaining records from government agencies across New York.

The law, signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, will force a government agency to pay the legal fees of anyone whose request for information under the state Freedom of Information Law has been denied unjustifiably. Backers said the mandate would create incentive for government agencies to not drag their feet on information requests.

“This shows us that Albany can move forward and can make government more accountable to the public,” said John Kaehny, executive director of watchdog group Reinvent Albany. He called the new law the biggest improvement in public-records access in New York in a decade.

The organization led the effort, which included pressure from several good-government groups and newspaper editorials statewide. The Senate and Assembly overwhelmingly approved the bill in the waning days of the legislative session in June.

The law will require state and local governments and school districts to pay attorneys’ fees to members of the public that prevail, under certain conditions, in court when seeking records under the state Freedom of Information Law.

If a judge determines a person or group seeking the records “substantially prevailed and . . . the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access,” the government agency will be compelled to pay legal fees in the matter.

Under the previous law, a judge may choose to require a government to pay the attorneys’ fees, but isn’t obligated to make that order.

Cuomo vetoed a similar bill in 2015 as overly broad.

Since then, sponsors including Assemb. Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) made changes. The 2015 bill called for government to pay attorneys’ fees for a “material violation” of the law, even if unintentional. The current bill would trigger the payments only if the government had “no reasonable basis for denial” in the eyes of a judge. Further, the 2015 bill didn’t preclude making government pay attorneys’ fees even if the government won the court case. The current bill requires payment only when the government loses a court case.

“Transparency is the key to our democracy and this bill will go a long way to ensuring that transparency,” Paulin said in an interview.

Cuomo said the Freedom of Information Law still requires further improvements, which he promises to do in 2018.

“While I continue to harbor concerns about diminishing the court’s discretion in these cases, it is outweighed by the greater principle of increasing transparency,” Cuomo said in signing the bill.

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