Group Files Suit For Records

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A nonprofit reform group recently filed suit against three Nassau County entities after they failed to comply with a reqHigh Schooluest for public documents.
The group, Reclaim New York Center for Government Reform and Accountability (Reclaim New York), announced the filing of litigation against the Town of Oyster Bay and the Manhasset and Elmont school districts. The suit alleges that all three refused to comply with New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), thereby failing to adhere to transparency laws when they denied or ignored requests to reveal contracts and expenditure information.
“New Yorkers shouldn’t have to beg to see how local government spends their money,” said Brandon Muir, Reclaim New York executive director. “This lawsuit and others, combine with our grassroots effort to put every public official and taxpayer-funded entity on notice that the days of spending money in the shadows are over.”
The organization launched a statewide transparency project last month to open the checkbooks of all of New York’s 3,400-plus governments to public view. More than 250 FOIL requests were sent to Long Island governments and close to 75 percent of governments across Long Island that received FOIL requests from Reclaim New York provided the information. However, the three subject to lawsuits, as well as more than three dozen others, failed to comply with the law.
Reclaim New York’s attorney, Dennis J. Saffran, said the group is filing Article 78 litigation, which is the general statute to review government action. Saffran said that while dozens failed to open checkbooks to the public, the three named in the suit represent the most egregious offenders.
The Manhasset School District, according to Saffran, first said the FOIL request language was unclear and elaborated that it could not provide expenditure details because reimbursements to employees and parents are interspersed throughout the documents. The district said, because of this, “the payment records may contain personal identifying information, such as a payee’s Social Security number or home address. If so, revealing such information would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The district went on to say that such information “could not be redacted without unreasonable time and effort.”
But Saffran and Reclaim New York said that this is not a valid reason to withhold public information.
“They’ve interspersed private information in their budget reports to shield the very public information. It’s the local equivalent of those rogue states that put civilians around military complexes so that the military complex won’t be bombed. It’s illegal,” said Saffran. “The legislature amended FOIL eight years ago to make it crystal clear that you can’t do that. You can’t use the existence of some private information to shield public information from disclosure. You have to redact it or if you claim you can’t in this technological age, the burden of proof is on you and it’s a very steep burden of proof to show the courts why you can’t do that.”
The district said that it “denied their request for those specific reasons and not to avoid transparency about district expenditures. We have not received any further correspondence from Reclaim New York on this matter.”
Muir said the Manhasset School District’s reason for not providing public information highlights Reclaim New York’s ultimate goal—to make these documents easily accessible to any citizen who files a request.
“Several entities that we talked with have a culture within them that doesn’t support transparency,” said Muir. “We have an issue of [government entities] not understanding the law. A variety of entities across Long Island don’t post their records access officer’s name and records appeal officer’s name online. When you don’t have those names, you don’t have anyone to send the FOIL to. People working as public officials need to understand what FOIL is, and ultimately we hope they see the value in proactive disclosure. Take a FOIL that’s been requested and produced when it’s put online. You save your staff time and it makes it easier for the public to understand what’s going on.”
In the coming weeks, all the checkbook information Reclaim New York has received from Long Island will be included in a searchable online database. Reclaim New York said that this public resource will allow any citizen, for the first time, to see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent, and set an example for governments on how they can be proactively transparent.
“We can use technology to ensure accountability,” said Muir. “This effort engages people across the state in demanding not only government compliance, but greater access to spending information. The New York Transparency Project will destroy barriers that keep the public in the dark while government spends more every year.”

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