Transparency in City Government

When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act on July 4, 1966, it was supposed to bring an end to back door politics and make the decisions of government accessible to every  citizen. New York State Public Officers Law Article 6, Sections 84-90 governs the New York State Freedom of Information Law. The legislative declaration states as follows:

§84. Legislative declaration. The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.

As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible.

The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature therefore declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article.

This law applies to both State and Local government agencies, the definition of which is:

…any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature.

The NYS Committee on Open Government directed by Bob Freeman, oversees the implementation of the provisions of the NYS Freedom of Information Law.  The publication Your Right to Know contains the basics of the Freedom of Information Law with recent updates available here.

The procedure to request documents through Freedom of Information is supposed to be addressed in an official policy adopted by the City of Amsterdam Common Council. Despite receiving an advisory opinion from Bob Freeman, the City has not complied with the law.

Back door politics and censorship continues to prevail in the City of Amsterdam as evidenced by the recent denial of information to reporter Jessica Maher of The Recorder.

Attorney doesn’t respond to FOIL request

Amsterdam Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis has not complied with a Freedom of Information request filed by the Recorder. A request was filed on Feb. 7 for all written or e-mailed correspondence between Uri Kaufman and Mayor Ann Thane and Kaufman and DeCusatis from May 2009 to present. Thane submitted her correspondence on Feb. 7 but DeCusatis has yet to respond.  An e-mail to the Records Access Officer regarding compliance was forwarded to DeCusatis without response. According to the state Freedom of Information law, an agency has five business days to grant or deny access in whole or in part, or if more time is needed, to acknowledge the receipt of the request in writing. Members of the Common Council had requested the same information from DeCusatis by resolution last week, and reportedly received the correspondence on Tuesday. — Jessica Maher

Failure to respond to a FOIL request is considered a denial of that request. Upon denial, the Record Access Officer (City Clerk) is supposed to issue a reason for denial including your right to appeal, timeframe for appeal and the name of the appeal officer.  In the case of the City of Amsterdam, the Appeal Officer is Mayor Ann Thane who simply ignores any appeal sent her.

Mayor Thane in particular seems to have a problem with transparency. The Mayor regularly censors her blog on which she posts official policy statements and conducts City business, leaving only comments that support or praise her. More recently, having control of the City of Amsterdam Facebook page, again used to conduct city business, she has chosen to remove all comments except those that praise her actions.  This type of censorship is NOT becoming of the City Executive who wants to run for reelection.

When I experienced problems with the local FOIL process, I wrote to Bob Freeman and received the following advisory opinion on April 8, 2010. A copy was also presented to Mayor Thane and the Common Council for compliance.

Advisory Opinion from The Committee on Open Government

Here is the response I received from Paul Malmborg, Chairman of the Citizens Review Board who basically directed me to file an Article 78 lawsuit against the City:

Citizens Review Board Response

The people have a right to know and a right to be heard. Censorship is abhorrent to the philosophy of a free and open government. The City of Amsterdam may want to abide by the provisions of New York State Freedom of Information or they will eventually find themselves subject to an Article 78 proceeding.

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7 thoughts on “Transparency in City Government

  1. Rob

    You should run for Mayor!

  2. Diane

    Jerry,

    I too have had problems with FOIA requests. The last response I got from the city
    controller told me I needed the names of all the vendors in order for her to provide me with the info in question. Mr. Freeman told me to tell the controller that I do not have to provide the names of vendors. This is known as a stalling tactic and it took me three weeks to get that answer. Very few of my requests come back within the 5 day period, so it can be frustrating. But that dosen’t bother me if is goes to 7 days or so……….I am just happy to get them back.

    Of course I would not be doing any of this FOILing if in fact there was accountaility and openess in this administration, but there is not. Everything is a big secret and that is in no one’s best interest.

    Diane

    • I totally agree Diane. I know you have a lot of experience with FOIL and our City government. I do appreciate your comment. The City of Amsterdam should start with enacting an official FOIL policy. It wouldn’t take much work as there is a model policy available ready for adopting on the website for the NYS Committee on Open Government.
      http://www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/modelregs_publicaccesstorecords.html

      Until City government adopts this policy, we will continue to experience problems with Freedom of Information.

  3. Diane

    Jerry,

    There is a new form they are using and I like it a lot better. It has much of the info that is mentioned above.

    Diane

  4. Diane,

    A form is nice but not required to file a FOIL request, nor is it a replacement for a written policy. FOIL requests can even be filed electronically through email..

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