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Press Club grades local governments on transparency

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The Press Club of Long Island conducted a study to see how long it would take towns, villages and cities in Nassau and Suffolk counties to process Freedom of Information requests to gauge transparency. Then they gave them a grade. Long Island’s average grade was a C, but the North Shore did better. The City of Glen Cove, Village of Sea Cliff and the Town of Oyster Bay all did well, but the Village of Bayville did not.

The group’s first ever Freedom of Information Legislation audit evaluated 195 governments and municipalities in over a 16 month period. Then they shared the “Open Records Report Card” on March 13 during Sunshine Week, a time when journalists develop stories, editorials and columns about FOIL.

Sea Cliff received an 85, a B. Newly reelected Mayor Ed Lieberman was pleased. “We were above average based on the scores, which is always a good thing,” he said.

But he believes the village could have scored even higher. At the time of the request, Lieberman said the village was going from one system of accounting to another, so it took more time for the village’s records management team to sort the documents.

The City of Glen Cove matched Sea Cliff receiving an 85, a B. Mayor Reggie Spinello said in a statement, “Glen Cove did very well and our city clerk’s office does an outstanding job in meeting the needs of our community.”

The Town of Oyster Bay received an 85, a B, too. Joseph Saladino, supervisor for the town, said he was proud to see that Oyster Bay scored well in the study. He added that he’s not surprised with the results because the town has worked “side by side” with residents who want to be a part of the town’s growth.

“This once again proves that we are building a high level of transparency as we continue to restore a reputation of good government and goodwill,” Saladino said.

But the survey was not conducted during his term, however. John Venditto, who resigned, was supervisor at the time. He is currently facing federal corruption charges.

The Village of Bayville scored below Long Island’s average with a 65, a D. Mayor Paul Rupp said he couldn’t comment until he looked over the PCLI report.

Timothy Bolger, PCLI’s Freedom of Information chairman, conducted the audit with Bill Bleyer, PCLI’s treasurer. Bolger said that he had filed hundreds of FOIL requests before PCLI launched this project, but he was taken aback by some of the results. “I was surprised at just how widespread of a problem it is for local government entities to miss legally mandated response deadlines.” However, he was also “pleasantly surprised” at the amount of municipalities and agencies who were “proactive in their handling of records requests.”

Bolger, who has worked in journalism for 14 years, explained that reporting and writing was the easy part of the study. The hard part was getting some of the government officials to take the final results into consideration.

“Some were more interested in shooting the messenger than addressing the problems we found,” Bolger added. “Others, thankfully, took the results to heart and used the report card as a chance to improve their responsiveness.”

A chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the PCLI based their grading criteria on the responsiveness of each government. The law requires FOIL requests to be acknowledged within five business days. Governments do have the option to request an extension for its respond and availability of the requested documents.

There is no word yet on whether PCLI will conduct this study annually.