Mar 12, 2012 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
More than 20,000 pages of documents were released by Freedom of Information Law last year in Onondaga County. Those documents correspond to more than 2,500 requests made across 20 towns, villages and the city of Syracuse.
These documents were made available by FOIL, a law that allows most documents held by government to be open to the public. The laws require municipalities to fulfill requests made for any number of documents, including police reports, emails, meeting agendas and minutes, calendars of public officials, building permits and policies.
The Eagle tested towns, villages and the city of Syracuse’s access to records in anticipation of Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government and freedom of information. The nationwide celebration, started by journalists but used to encourage citizen engagement, runs from March 11 to 17.
A request was sent to towns, villages and the city of Syracuse Feb. 9, seeking a log, should they keep one, of all FOIL requests processed by the clerk’s office in 2011. If a log wasn’t kept, reporters requested access to the file of FOILs, which are required by state law to be kept by the clerk for at least six months. Two towns, Clay and DeWitt, purged the records that quickly. Three towns, Camillus, Cicero and Manlius, kept a log of all FOIL records from 2011.
While the village of Jordan didn’t have anyone looking for records, the city of Syracuse was inundated with nearly 1,500 requests.
“[Freedom of Information Law] is great for keeping our government open and transparent, and letting people know what’s actually going on out there,” said Roy Gutterman, associate professor of communications law at Syracuse University.
“We really get inundated with a large quantity of FOILs [Freedom of Information Law requests], and they really run the gamut of all different types,” said Joseph Barry, Syracuse’s first assistant corporation counsel.
In Syracuse alone, about 1,500 requests were made resulting in 14,463 pages of documents, a handful of photo disks and a video being released to the public, law firms and insurance companies.
At the other end of the spectrum, most villages see fewer than 20 requests a year. The village of Jordan didn’t receive a single FOIL request in 2011. Others are scattered, anywhere between four in Elbridge to 18 in Fayetteville and 20 in North Syracuse.
The majority of FOIL requests for villages with fire departments are from insurance companies, records show.
More than 50 percent of all requests in the villages of Fayetteville and Minoa were medical reports from insurance companies or the coroner’s office, in regards to care a patient received prior to being brought to the hospital or pronounced dead by ambulance crews.
Those FOILs, said Lorie Corsette, Fayetteville village clerk, are sent out to the fire department to fill.
Embroiled in controversy in the fall, the village of Camillus saw four of their seven FOIL requests in 2011 relating to November’s dissolution vote and budget discussion, records show. Residents wanted to see information related to the petition, board meetings and the adopted budget for 2011.
Many of the FOIL requests sent to local municipalities shed light on what was important to the residents at the time — requests for municipal budgets during election season is a common occurrence, as well as requests for building plans or permit applications for developing businesses. In East Syracuse, requesters sought out information on the village police department, which could be up for dissolution this spring. In Fayetteville, requests for the fire department budget were made as the news broke of the fire department’s mortgage causing a tax increase in the town of Manlius.
“People don’t care about what’s going on with public affairs until they have to, then they pay attention,” Gutterman said. “It’s a lot more fun to pay attention to gossip than the innerworkings of a school or village board.”
The greatest majority of FOILs to fill, across the board, are through the police department.
In Syracuse, about 20 percent, or nearly 300 requests, were made specifically to the police department.
“Most commonly, the police get the majority of the requests because of accident reports or inquiries from the media about different incidents,” said Barry. “The police have to take the time to gather that report and send the response over to [the city’s legal team.]”
Barry said much of the personal information on a police report is redacted, such as birth dates and social security numbers, mainly to protect witnesses of crime.
“We want people to feel comfortable reporting these things to police,” Barry said. “In turn, we try to protect the privacy to the extent we’re allowed.”
Records show limited denials in the city’s FOIL requests, particularly when dealing with police. Only two requests were denied, according to documents received by Eagle Newspapers. Denials are typically due to an open investigation, Barry said.
The volume of police reports is also true in Camillus, where a whopping 33 percent of FOILs were in regards to police matters, and in DeWitt, where 36 of 44 requests in six months were for police matters. That’s 81 percent of the total FOILs.
“If it’s a police report, it’s public,” said Barbara Klim, DeWitt town clerk. “Unless there is a special circumstance where the police department said it couldn’t be released, because of an informant might need to be protected, or a minor’s name may need to be redacted.”
All of DeWitt’s requests for police information were granted but two, which were both related to the police department’s work in the case of Nicholas Auricchio. His attorneys requested vacation records and requests for two DeWitt Police Officers, which was denied. Other aspects of that request were approved and granted. Attorneys also requested employment records of the same two police officers, which was also denied.
Auricchio is suing the town of DeWitt over his arrest in 2009, on charges of violating the town noise ordinance. Police say he was sharing religious beliefs on East Genesee Street when police asked him to stop because he was disrupting the area.
Other popular cases for FOILs have included a criminal case surrounding the Erie Boulevard Denny’s restaurant, where four people were stabbed in January 2011. Attorneys have also requested copies of crime scene photos from a sawmill accident at B&B Lumber, which left a 35-year-old man dead in February 2011.
Two municipalities redacted the names of people who made requests, a detail that is allowable by law, said Bob Freeman, director of the Committee on Open Government.
The town of Camillus sent their FOIL log to Eagle Newspapers with the name of the requester redacted, something that was done to prohibit undue scrutiny, said Dirk Oudemool, town attorney.
“We’re always concerned about disclosing information that leads to the identification of people and their personal business,” Oudemool said. “By first blush, our first reaction is to avoid that personal exposure of people who deal with government to an undue intrusion in their personal lives when all they’re doing is exercising a personal right.”
Oudemool said the town’s first reaction is to protect the rights of the individuals making FOIL requests, protecting them from public ridicule because they are a frequent requester.
The Eagle did have the opportunity to appeal the redaction, but did not do so.
Freeman says identifying those who submit FOIL requests is not something that should be private.
“When you make a request for a budget or meeting minutes or building plans, is there anything personal about that? No,” he said. “The only situations, in our view, in which identifying details could be deleted is cases in which the request itself involves intimate or personal details. In the great majority of circumstances, there is nothing intimate or therefore private in a FOIL request.”
The city of Syracuse also did not provide the names of the requesters.
An organization has five business days from the receipt of the FOIL request to acknowledge it — typically in one of two ways. The first is approving or denying the request and submitting that information to the requester. The second is by acknowledging the request and explaining to the requester that the agency will need more time to finish the request. State law allows up to 20 business days.
“There are some units of government that routinely acknowledge the receipt of the request and indicate it will be 20 days,” said Freeman. “It’s the boiler plate response and I find that to be objectionable.”
Some documents should be easier to approve more quickly than others, Freeman said.
“The notion is that agencies should not be either putting up a stonewall or unnecessarily delaying responses to requests,” he said.
Should an agency not respond within the initial five days, or within the extended 20 days, that is considered a denial of the request, which can be appealed.
All municipalities, except for the city of Syracuse, granted The Eagle’s FOIL request within five business days — some responded within the hour of the initial email. Syracuse granted the response to the FOIL request, in part, on the nineteenth business day of the 20 allowable. The city sent how many pages the FOIL request produced, the department it was directed toward and the day it was provided. Details of the documents each FOIL requester sought, as well as the name of the requester, was not provided.
“We have to respond, but sometimes a lot of data has to be generated and collected in a way that doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy,” Barry said. “At the end of the day, it’s a paperwork-intensive process that never seems to end. They come in everyday and we try to get them out as soon as possible.”
A denial to a typical FOIL request can be appealed. Should that be left unanswered or denied, again, citizens are able to then litigate, which many see as a flaw in the Freedom of Information process.
“One of the huge failings of FOIL is that there are no sanctions, or no effective sanctions,” said Sue Long, of Syracuse University’s FOIA Project. “The absence of effective sanctions breeds law-breaking.”
If the case gets to court, a judge will decide if the records are open or allowed to be concealed.
“Media companies and citizens don’t have the time or the money to litigate these things,” Gutterman said. “A lot of people just fold up, and say ‘aw, shucks. We won’t get this one,’ and walk away.”
But providing that sunlight on public documents and government’s innerworkings is important, especially during Sunshine Week, Freeman said.
“It has given many of us the opportunity to focus on the importance of government accountability,” he said. “And in New York, it has been exceedingly successful because it leads the state legislature to recognize that there are always ways to improve our open government laws.”