Enforcing Freedom of Information Laws

I believe strongly in the public’s right to obtain information through freedom of information laws. As General Counsel to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, I had the responsibility of responding to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Responding to such requests can be incredibly time consuming, a more pro-active approach is to make as much information available on-line through the power of technology and the Internet.

We are fortunate in New York State to have the New York State Committee on Open Government, headed up by Robert Freeman. Mr. Freeman is extremely accessible by e-mail and telephone for advisory opinions regarding FOIL matters. I have contacted Mr. Freeman in my capacity with the Buffalo Housing Authority and as a concerned citizen for his opinion on FOIL and open meeting issues.

Jim Heaney a former Buffalo News reporter has a post up about the difficulty he and other reporters have had in obtaining information requested through FOIL. The Albany-Times Union has had similar issues.

Having the legal right to obtain information through FOIL is a great tool but if this right is being thwarted through stone walling or just simply refusing to respond, then perhaps citizens need additional measures.

The state of Connecticut, has a nine-member panel that hears nearly 800 complaints a year from the public over alleged abuses by public officials of its Freedom of Information laws. The sides present their arguments to the panel, and then a ruling is made on whether the information under dispute should be made public.

As pointed out in a Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article, Pennsylvania started a commission in 2009 that has binding authority to impose the law. The 10-person office, which has a budget of about $1.1 million, has handled about 4,000 cases since it started; all but 200 were resolved without having to end up in the courts.

What is amazing to me as pointed out by the numbers referenced above is how many people want information and have been denied such information requiring the involvement of a panel to decide the matter.

While I generally do not support creating more bureaucracy, I like the idea of creating an Open Government Committee at the local government level. While local governments seem to have many committees and boards (my hometown of Tonawanda, NY, has 28 of them), none that I have seen have an Open Government Committee. Such a committee could encourage government officials to release information in a pro-active manner to reduce the time involved in responding to FOIL requests. An Open Government Committee could also hear disagreements about FOIL requests, similar to what has been done in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, without the expenditure of a large sum of money.

What do you think about forming an Open Government Committee in your community? If you are an elected official or a citizen activist, why not raise such an idea at your next local government meeting?

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