Government officials often refuse to release public records in accordance...

Government officials often refuse to release public records in accordance with the law. Credit: Getty Images/Jose A. Bernat Bacete

For decades, New York residents have used the state's Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, to seek public information and hold elected officials accountable. But often, government officials refuse to release requested information in accordance with the law, resulting in lengthy delays and even legal battles.

Anyone can use FOIL. It has been a tool primarily for journalists, advocates and researchers examining how money is spent and how bureaucrats and elected officials make decisions. Filing a FOIL request can be complicated. There are no guarantees records will be produced. At times, public officials delay responses. Some requests are simply denied. Saying “yes” and providing the information seems the exception, not the rule.

The State Legislature is evaluating several promising FOIL-related bills that could reduce delays, make it easier for the public to know what information is being sought, and more readily reimburse attorney fees when the party FOILing records prevails in court. Such a penalty could make governmental agencies think twice about habitually stalling.

Current law requires an initial response within five business days, when an agency is supposed to release the records, deny the request, or provide a timetable for response. The law says records should be provided “within a reasonable period.”

Over the last several months, the Newsday editorial board has filed nearly a dozen FOIL requests with eight state or local government entities. None of the public information requested has been produced. Here are a few examples of what we asked for and what we've been told.

Nassau County Medical Examiner: Last November, the editorial board requested information regarding fatal opioid incidents in Nassau. That FOIL was denied. We appealed. That, too, was denied.

State Department of Health: In March, the editorial board requested Nassau University Medical Center records of complaints and inspections. The department delayed its response until June, with no indication whether records would be provided. In early April, we requested NUMC-related correspondence, including attachments. The department has estimated a late June response.

Nassau County: The editorial board in early April requested details of payments to NUMC and correspondence between NUMC executives and county officials. More recently, we FOILed on a different question: Who applied to be a special deputy sheriff under County Executive Bruce Blakeman's new militia program? County officials have not responded to either request beyond an automated emailed copy of the request, without any timetable for future response.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority: Early last month, we sought overtime records for MTA employees, and in mid-April, we requested records for MTA board members who use a taxpayer-funded E-ZPass. The MTA said to expect replies in June.

Nassau University Medical Center: The editorial board early last month requested information regarding Nassau County payments to the hospital, plus details about NUMC contracts with vendors and for legal services. Earlier this month, NUMC delayed responding until mid-June, citing the request's “voluminous” nature.

We'll continue to update. For now, we wait.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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