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Many city agencies flout law by withholding public info from press


amny Credit: amNY Photo Illustration

The public’s “right to know” has become the public’s right to wait — and in some cases, getting information from government agencies is a process that can drag on for months without a reliable response.

New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) guarantees citizens access to government documents, but an amNewYork survey of the nearly four-decade-old law found city agencies failing to reply in a timely manner and even ignoring requests outright.

Unions, advocacy groups and journalists told amNewYork they’re frustrated by how time-consuming and challenging getting information can be under the Bloomberg administration.

The New York Times was so fed up that, in December, it sued the NYPD for what it called “a pattern and practice of violating FOIL.”

“The irony is that when Michael Bloomberg ran for mayor in 2001, he promised more transparency for the police department than existed under [former Mayor] Rudy Giuliani, who was notorious for refusing to provide information to the public,” said Leonard Levitt, author of “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country’s Greatest Police Force.”

“Under [Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly, it is worse,” Levitt added.

Other groups say they’ve been stonewalled when asking for public records.

“Information is power,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the parent advocacy group Class Size Matters. “The more they can deny giving critical information, the more they can deny what they say isn’t true.”

Testing FOIL

amNewYork sent record requests to 38 city agencies as well as the MTA, Public Advocate’s Office and Comptroller’s Office. Requested were the most current personnel lists, including the name, title and salary for each employee — a record that must be maintained and available to the public.

Since making requests in February, amNewYork found:

• Eight agencies failed to respond within the five-business-day deadline they are given to make the information available, deny the request with a reason, or provide an approximate date when the documents will be ready.

• Some agencies expressed disdain for answering queries. Concerning a related question on FOIL requests, a city Housing Preservation and Development staffer wrote in an email to a records officer that “this is the kind of crap I have no patience for.” Incidentally, HPD was the fastest agency to respond to amNY’s initial FOIL request, taking two days.

• Despite asking that the records be sent directly to amNewYork, the NYPD and the sanitation department instead referred us to online resources. The website provided by the NYPD, however, was only as current as 2009. The link to the sanitation website was broken.

An NYPD records officer said they refer people to websites when the information can be obtained faster that way.

Over the years, the NYPD has routinely ignored or responded with the bare minimum to amNewYork’s requests for information, from basic details on crimes and effectiveness of surveillance cameras to whether cops are assigned at specific landmarks.

A sanitation department spokesman later said that its employee list is not on the website and offered to gather the information for amNewYork in June, which it did.

• The Department of Environmental Protection received more than 7,000 FOIL requests last year, the most among the city agencies that responded. Although it had such a large volume, it was still one of the quickest to provide a list of its nearly 6,000 employees.

• Other departments delayed responding to amNewYork’s request, saying they were overwhelmed by the “volume and complexity” of other requests. The Department of Education, which had 790 FOIL requests last year, failed to respond within five days and then pushed back its response date four times between March and July.

A DOE spokeswoman said some requests are more involved and take longer because they can require “literally having to get sheets of paper from every single school.”

Public concern

The public should be alarmed when information from the government is not easily accessible, said Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

“As a taxpayer citizen of the state of New York, you’re simply asking for your own records. They don’t own it — you do,” Bunting said.

He added that New York’s FOIL should “have more teeth” to compel government agencies to abide by requests within a stated deadline.

From 2009 to 2010, Class Size Matters waited 15 months for a FOIL response on teacher performance data under then-School Chancellor Joel Klein.

Haimson, the group’s executive director, said the DOE didn’t give her all the information she asked for and later said it was still unavailable. “Clearly, they would like to wear people out and discourage them from asking for information again,” Haimson said.

City response

Both the Mayor’s Office and the NYPD said the public has more access to government information than ever before.

Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna called the administration “the most transparent in the city’s history” and has gone “above and beyond city law requirements in order to hold our agencies accountable.”

Among the city’s initiatives under Bloomberg: Citywide Performance Reporting, an online tool that tells the public how well government is performing; 311, a phone and online service that allows residents to communicate with government; and NYC Data Mine, an online database featuring government records.

The NYPD also has put more information on its website, including crime and enforcement activity, murder analysis and a stop-and-frisk database, said spokesman Paul Browne.

“There has never been more information made available than there is now under Commissioner [Ray] Kelly,” Browne said.

Bob Liff, a former reporter and Democratic political consultant, said the public’s right to know may not be perfectly served under Bloomberg, but it has vastly improved from his predecessor’s time.

“I don’t doubt that there’s always a battle over controversial information,” Liff said. “But under Rudy, the battle was over basic information. That’s a significant distinction.”

Increasing access

Citizens Union, a city-based watchdog group, said more must be done to improve public access. For instance, government agencies automatically can put records and databases already requested by the public onto their websites, which would save time when other people ask for them.

And while the city has posted some data online, “none are inclusive, where you can do one-stop shopping and find all the data that’s possible,” said Alex Camarda, the group’s director of public policy and advocacy.

A bill co-sponsored by Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Upper West Side) would make such data — for example, permit info from the Department of Buildings or lists of violations collected by agencies — available on a single website. “We need to open up government like never before,” she said.

(With Dina Davis)

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