Money in Politics in NY: Aug. 22 Edition

The Real Moreland Takeaway
SUNY New Paltz dean and state government expert Gerald Benjamin and former New York City corporation counsel Fritz Schwarz wrote an op-ed in the Daily News this week to emphasize the need for public financing at the state level. The attention surrounding Governor Cuomo’s handling of the Moreland Commission is “an easy distraction,” they write, that “takes our attention off of where it should really be focused…the commission’s crucial recommendations for campaign finance.” When adopted, they argue, these reforms will curb the corrosive power of big money in Albany and strengthen the influence of average voters. Schwarz and Benjamin also wrote a letter, which is joined by more than 20 other prominent New Yorkers, urging candidates for the New York State legislature to make public financing a top priority next year.  Read more…

Monday in Politics in NY: Aug. 15 Edition

Cuomo Ignores Calls for Debates
recent poll conducted by Siena College shows that although a large majority of New York voters believe Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the Moreland Commission was inappropriate, they still view him favorably and would vote to re-elect him. The poll was conducted from August 4 to August 7 in the wake of renewed federal investigations and widespread criticisms of how the Moreland Commission was abruptly ended. Despite an overwhelming feeling among participants that corruption is still a major problem in the New York State government and general disagreement with Governor Cuomo’s claim that the Moreland Commission was successful, 58 percent of voters said they would vote to re-elect him. These results imply that the New York Times article detailing ways the governor’s office tried to control the commission and the ongoing federal investigation have not caused serious damage to the governor’s campaign heading into election season. Read more…

FOIL Request Logs As Open Data Sensor

Listening to FOIL: Using FOIL Requests To Guide Agency Open Data Efforts
Case Study: An analysis of NYS DEC FOIL Logs

The advent of the Internet and inexpensive information technology have created enormous opportunities for proactively disclosing public records and digital information or “data.” New York State and New York City have recognized this opportunity, and have released hundreds of agency data sets via “open data initiatives,” like the State’s Open NY and the City’s Open Data Law. However, releasing public data sets takes time and money, and agencies have often wondered what data sets they should publish first.

It turns out the public is telling government exactly what data they want via Freedom of Information Law requests, and agencies should start Listening to FOIL.

Earlier this year, Reinvent Albany FOILed the list of the FOIL requests received by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in 2013. We picked DEC because we knew it received large numbers of FOIL requests, had a highly professional FOIL staff, and has made a concerted effort to provide information on its comprehensive website. In other words, DEC is already one of the best agencies at striving to provide information to the public. But open data is as new to DEC as it is to other agencies, and we are breaking new ground by directly connecting FOIL to open data.

DEC provided us with a spreadsheet of nearly 4,000 requests, which included the identity of the requestor and a brief summary of the records requested. We also contacted a number of exceptionally “frequent FOILers” to ask them directly what data they were seeking.

Our analysis of the DEC FOIL logs confirms that FOIL requests themselves contain a wealth of information. In DEC’s case an extraordinary 55% of all FOIL requests are asking for information about oil or hazardous chemical spills on particular parcels of property. This is the kind of “public data” that is ideal of publishing on open data platforms. (Public data is in contrast to “personal data” or sensitive information about individuals.)

Read our full report: Listening to FOIL, examine the 2013 FOIL logs for DEC, and read on.

What We Learned

The log of all FOIL request received by the DEC in 2013 was full of interesting information about who is FOILing the DEC and what they’re looking for. The highlights:

  1. Over 80% of all FOIL requests to the DEC in 2013 (3,456 out of 3,977) were from businesses.
  2. Just twelve real estate industry companies made 20% of all FOIL requests.
  3. About 55% of all requests (2,200) were about spills on specific properties.
  4. Other state and local government agencies FOILed DEC 69 times in 2013.
  5. Journalists were only 3% of FOIL requests. (73 requests.)

DEC FOIL chart


What We Recommend

Our analysis of DEC FOIL logs demonstrates that FOIL logs are a valid way to identify which data sets are most interesting to the public, i.e. “High value data sets.” Accordingly, we recommend that agencies, and the Governor’s Open NY team, undertake the following steps to reap the most from this opportunity:

  1. Work with DEC to publish its most FOILed data sets.
  2. Identify which state agencies keep FOIL logs identifying requests by topic.
  3. Select the agency with the most requests and analyze its FOIL log.
  4. Publish that agency’s public data based on the FOIL log analysis.
  5. Draft guidance to agencies explaining how to analyze FOIL logs to determine what data to put on their websites, and in what form, and to guide the publication of their data sets on
  6. Recommend government agencies use automated FOIL systems which track the topic of requests, to create logs for analysis in recommendation #3.

Why Is the Cuomo Administration Automatically Deleting State Employees’ Emails?

Pro Publica writes today “Why is the Cuomo Administration Automatically Deleting State Employees’ Emails?

This story was co-published with the Albany Times-Union and WNYC.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration — which the governor pledged would be the most transparent in state history — has quietly adopted policies that allow it to purge the emails of tens of thousands of state employees, cutting off a key avenue for understanding and investigating state government.

Last year, the state started deleting any emails more than 90 days old that users hadn’t specifically saved — a much more aggressive stance than many other states. The policy shift was first reported by the Albany Times Union.

previously unpublished memo outlining the policy raises new questions about the state’s stated rationale for its deletions policy. What’s more, the rules on which emails must be retained are bewilderingly complex – they fill 118 pages – leading to further concern that emails may not be saved at all.

“If you’re aggressively destroying your email, it looks like you’re trying to hide something,” said Benjamin Wright, a Dallas lawyer who has advised companies and government agencies on records retention.

ProPublica obtained the memo through a public records request.

In the June 18, 2013, memo, Karen Geduldig, the general counsel of the state’s Office of Information Technology Services, described New York’s decision to automatically delete emails as a way to cut down on the state’s “enormous amount of email data.”

But the state implemented the policy as part of a move to Microsoft’s Office 365 email system, which offers 50 gigabytes of space per email user — enough to store hundreds of thousands or even millions of emails for each state worker. The state’s version of Office 365 also offers unlimited email archivingRead more…

Transparency and Thruway’s Baffling $35m TZ Savings Claim

Yesterday, the Thruway Authority claimed in a press release that it would save $35m in borrowing costs by borrowing $255.7m in Clean Water funds from the Environmental Facilities Corporation. We find this claim baffling and calculate that at most the Thruway (not tax payers) would save $10,074,580, and if it was charged the same ECF administrative fee as towns and counties, it would save $6,926,274. We detail our calculations and assumptions below, but we have no idea how the Thruway arrived at their $35m claim.

In July, the Thruway Authority prevailed upon the Environmental Facilities Corporation (also controlled by the governor) to lend it $255.7m in short term State Clean Water Revolving Fund, “STIFF” funds. At their July board meeting, the Thruway Authority distributed a summary of what they would save  by borrowing Clean Water money. Their calculations are based on the difference in borrowing costs two types of Clean Water loans and the Thruway borrowing using a Bond Anticipation Note or BAN at 0.8% interest for five years.

Thruway Savings Using 5 Year Clean Water Revolving Fund STIFF vs. OBO Bond Anticipation Notes

Savings (no ECF fee) = $10,074,580 = Cost of borrowing using OBO vs. STIFF = Cost of OBO – STIFF = $10,074,580 – 0
Savings with ECF fee = $6,926,274 = STIFF Savings – ECF Fee of 0.25%* five years

Cost of borrowing $255,7000 five year BAN = $10,074,580 = (255,700,000*0.8%)*4.925 years
ECF Fee= $3,148,306.25 = (255,7000*0.25%)*4.925 years

Amount borrowed: $255,700,000
Term: 5 years (actual used in TA calculation is 4.925 years)
Interest on BAN: 0.8%
Interest on STIFF: 0%
ECF Admin Fee: 0.25% / year (25 basis points)