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Nassau asks vendors to redact some data on county contracts

Nassau County, which removed more than six months of approved contracts from its website recently for fear of disclosing private data, is now asking vendors to black out personal information on their county paperwork — a move that “doesn’t seem to make alot of sense,” according to the director of the state’s open government committee.

County Attorney Carnell Foskey last week sent a memo to all department heads telling them to advise “all persons and companies” submitting bids, proposals and other information to also submit “a duplicate redacted version of the paper work.”

That “website ready” paper would be posted on the county legislature’s website, he said.

“The ‘website ready’ paperwork shall be identical to the paperwork being submitted for consideration by the department, except that the contractor will have the opportunity to redact all information of a private or personal nature,” Foskey wrote.

He added that contractors should be told that any redactions should conform to exemptions listed in the state’s Freedom of Information Law and “includes, but is not limited to Social Security numbers, home or personal telephone numbers, home addresses, email addresses or social network usernames, information of a personal nature where disclsoure would result in economic or personal hardship and trade secrets or similar information the disclosures of which would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the person or company providing it.”

Any paperwork submitted without redactions will be considered acceptable for posting, Foskey wrote.

But Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said it’s up to the county to interpret the Freedom of Information Law, not county vendors. “You don’t leave it to private companies to make the decision. The government makes that decision,” Freeman said.

He added that the county should simply develop a form “in a way that nothing is there that would be private under FOIL.”

County officials said they removed the contracts, which first went online in late summer, after a vendor complained that his Social Security number appeared on the website. After looking through dozens of contracts that had been posted, officials found another vendor who had included his Social Security number even though only his business tax ID number had been requested.

Company tax ID numbers are not private, Freeman said, and can be found on many public documents. “Its not personal,” he explained. “If its not personal, the privacy exemption would not apply.”

Freeman said it sounded easier for the county to redact the one line that may concern Social Security numbers. Most county forms, however, do not request Social Security numbers.

Tanya M. Lukasik, co-founder of Open Nassau, a countywide advocacy group that presses for more transparency in government, said she has gone through hundreds of contracts and “I have never seen a document that even asks for personal identifying information.”

Instead, she said, half the time the requested public information “is mostly incomplete.”

She said Nassau should follow the practice of New York City and Westchester, which not only post their contracts and associated correspondence online but also file them only by subject matter, instead of the complicated process that had been required to find and view Nassau contracts in the past.

Legis. Delia DeRiggi Whitton (D-Glen Cove) said, “As a legislator the idea of having two forms, one public and one private is exactly the type of behavior we are trying to avoid. It’s my understanding that the vendor’s Social Security number is not listed on the form, so I am not sure what information they are trying to conceal from the public. This seems like a step in the wrong direction — protecting vendors not taxpayers.”

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