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N.Y. strengthens its freedom of information law

By The Associated Press
08.08.06

ALBANY, N.Y. — A new state law should make it faster and cheaper for New Yorkers to gain access to government records and Gov. George Pataki is considering another bill that could strengthen the Freedom of Information Law.

A bill signed into law last week by Pataki allows New Yorkers to use e-mail to request most government records.

Common records sought under FOIL are minutes of closed-door meetings, correspondence by officials about development projects and competitive bidding, and government use of taxpayers' money.

"Enabling the public to request records by means of e-mail and to require the government to respond by e-mail when they have the ability to do so will simply make the Freedom of Information Law much more usable to so many people," said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

Freeman said the law could speed release of public records as well as eliminate the cost of copying. That per-page cost can total hundreds of dollars and has deterred some people from taking possession of records disclosed under FOIL.

But the biggest change in the post-Watergate law aimed at keeping government honest is still on Pataki's desk.

That law would allow courts to force local and state governments and school districts to pay attorney fees to a citizen, group, business or news organization denied access to information even if there isn't a broad public interest in the records. The law would also allow a court to force government and school districts to pay court costs if officials had no "reasonable basis for denying access" or failed to respond to a request within the time required by law.

In practice, the measure could prevent any denials of records by officials who knew that individuals, groups or news organizations lacked the resources to sue to overturn the denial.

"It's huge," Freeman said. "It would be the most significant change in the law in years."

But at a cost to government, said Peter Baynes of the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials.

"We think it fails to take into account the high volume and complexity of FOIL requests," he said.

The municipal lobbying group also opposes the change to allow courts to assess attorney fees if government misses its new deadline to act, Baynes said.

"We're also concerned that under the new standards proposed in the bill, the court would be allowed to assess attorneys fees regardless of the merits of the contesting party's claim," he said.

"A good potion of our membership are smaller municipalities where there is a village clerk who has to do all different aspects of government," Baynes said. "A FOIL request can be burdensome when it's a voluminous request."

Courts have had the power to assess attorney fees, but the new measure could greatly expand fee assessments when government wrongly denies records to the public or misses the deadline in the law.

"Under current law, although the citizen may have every right to the records, and may be stonewalled by a recalcitrant agency in violation of the law, that citizen has no avenue through which to recoup his or her costs if forced to go to court," said Diane Kennedy of the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, which lobbied for both bills.

Pataki spokesman Saleem Cheeks said Pataki would try to balance a desire for more accountable and transparent government "without placing undue burden on the agencies."


Update
N.Y. governor signs bill targeting FOI violators
Law allows citizens to collect legal fees when they are wrongly denied public documents by government officials. 08.17.06

Related

3 states move to improve open government

New York, Iowa governors sign bills; California Gov. Schwarzenegger agrees public records should be more readily available. 05.08.05

N.Y. high court denies attorney fees in FOI case
Open-government advocates disappointed in ruling about documents involving nursing home that lost its license. 10.26.05

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