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Nassau County continues to struggle with records requests

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran’s administration continues to struggle with New York Freedom of Information Law requests.

Last week, the county attorney denied a request for assessment records that had already been released by the Assessment Review Commission.

On Friday, in a response to Newsday’s request for an assessment contract, the county attorney’s office said any request to Curran for public records would be denied unless the records were physically held in her office. The officials also said Nassau County “as a whole” is not subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

By midday Friday, officials conceded that the county executive’s public information office would still accept FOIL requests for various public records as it has for at least the past 30 years.

By late afternoon, the county attorney had released the records requested by Newsday on Sept. 19 through Curran’s public information office.

“Based on Newsday inquiries, the county executive is reviewing FOIL request policies to ensure rapid acknowledgment and response,” said Curran spokesman Michael Martino. “The county executive is committed to 100 percent transparency.”

Initially, the county attorney’s office said in an email Friday morning that the assessment department would respond in 20 days to Newsday’s request.

But in the future, the email warned, requests had to be made to the department that holds the records. “FOIL requests sent to the county executive’s office for records that are not contained in the county executive’s office will be denied. We will not be responding to countywide FOIL requests . . . Nassau County as a whole is not an agency for FOIL purposes.” 

But what if the person requesting information doesn’t know where the records are held? And what if multiple departments hold some but not all of the records requested?

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, read the county email and said, “We in government are public servants and I have emphasized the 'Spike Lee principle' on many occasions. We do the right thing. If a request is made to the office of the county attorney and the record is retained by the county health department, the right thing would involve forwarding the request to the health department. The response, in my opinion, should not be, ‘We don’t have it. period. Goodbye.’”

Freeman continued, “The real issue is not a matter of law. It’s a matter of common courtesy and common sense. If I don’t know who has the records, I pick up the phone and find out. That’s the common courtesy of being a public servant doing the right thing. Who do we work for anyway?”

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