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Editorial

Too many failing marks on open government

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Elected leaders often look upon the Freedom of Information Act with barely disguised disapproval, and more often with outright disdain. Heck, the president who signed the act, Lyndon B. Johnson, came to this landmark legislation kicking and screaming in 1966.

When it was time for Johnson to authorize the bill, he did so at his ranch in Johnson, Texas, far from the glare of the Washington press. As the story goes, he didn’t want to make too big a deal about it. After all, FOIA opened government officials to increased scrutiny. Journalists, good-government advocates and average citizens now had access to documents that might prove ineptitude, or worse, malfeasance.

The legislation said essentially this: Within certain limits, any American could ask for — and receive — documents on file with government agencies. Most any records are up for grabs, with a few exceptions, such as ongoing crime investigation reports and personnel records. And, of course, classified information is off-limits.

FOIA covers federal agencies. The Freedom of Information Law, passed in 1974, covers New York state. It was repealed and replaced in 1977 and has been amended three times since, most recently in 2008, according to the State Committee on Open Government, a division of the Department of State.

Each March, journalists across the country mark Sunshine Week with stories, editorials and columns about Freedom of Information legislation. This year the week was March 12 to 18.

The Press Club of Long Island, a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, spent months conducting a FOIL audit of the 195 governments and government agencies across Long Island, checking to see to what degree they abide by the law. The central question was, were they providing documents in a timely fashion when requested? Full disclosure: Scott Brinton, the Heralds’ executive editor, is a PCLI board member, though he was not involved in the project.

Timothy Bolger, PCLI’s Freedom of Information chairman and the managing editor of the Long Island Press, conducted the audit, with help from Bill Bleyer, PCLI’s treasurer and a retired Newsday reporter, and Carl Corry, a freelance journalist who worked on the graphics. It is an exhaustive study that required hundreds of hours of work. Bolger’s commitment to the project was truly remarkable and laudable.

Bolger would, however, be the first to say that it’s not about him; it’s about the data. Sadly, the report doesn’t paint a pretty picture of our local government officials’ willingness to adhere to the law. Overall, Long Island governments, in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, received an average grade of C.

Bolger made written requests for documents from governments and agencies across the Island — and then waited to see how long they took to respond. Often he was left waiting, and waiting, even though the law states that an agency must respond within five days.

The longer governments and agencies took to respond, the worse their grade. Nassau County agencies had an average grade of D+. Suffolk agencies averaged C+. The Island’s 13 towns and two cities averaged a B, and the 96 villages, a C.

Key findings of the report include:

• Sixty-four percent of the governments or agencies — 125 in all — failed to respond to PCLI’s requests by the legally required deadlines.

• Forty-six percent failed to provide a list of documents they are required to maintain.

• Thirty-two percent of villages — 31 — did not provide copies of their FOIL policies, which PCLI later found in their codes.

• Only 44 percent of the governments or agencies had directions on their websites explaining how to request records. This isn’t required by FOIL, but it is a measure of how easy, or hard, local officials make it for a member of the public to obtain information.

• Twenty-four percent failed to maintain their own FOIL policies, as required by law. Local governments are required to have a written FOIL policy that stipulates who the Freedom of Information officer is, the hours during which requested files can be picked up, and to whom appeals of record request denials should be made.

• Sixteen percent of all agencies forced PCLI to appeal a denial of requests for records that FOIL stipulates are public information.

• Sixteen percent were given failing grades.

Based on PCLI’s audit, it’s clear that too many Long Island governments and agencies are skirting a law that is critical to an open society — and to our very democracy. We can only say thank you to the Press Club of Long Island. And to our government officials, you’ve got to do better. Period.

To view the full report, go to www.pcli.org.