Nine Government Watchdog Groups Urge
New York’s Committee on Open Government
To Address State’s Failing FOIL Process
COOG to Meet December 2nd on Annual Report
Last week, nine transparency watchdogs sent a letter urging the Committee on Open Government (COOG) to address massive delays and agency non-compliance undermining New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
The groups called for COOG to flag the “significant FOIL delays, incomplete compliance and improper denials” in the committee’s upcoming 2020 annual report.
The groups praised the Committee on Open Government’s helpful advisory opinions and advocacy for legislation that strengthens FOIL. However, the groups called on COOG to do something about ubiquitous problems, including delays of months and sometimes years, and agencies disclosing only partial public records or arbitrarily refusing to provide them at all. The groups point out that New York State, including COOG, does not have basic information about how FOIL is working, including how many requests agencies get and how long it takes them to disclose records.
While no comprehensive analysis of NYS FOIL has been done, Reinvent Albany estimates that over 250,000 FOIL requests are submitted to state and local agencies annually. Reinvent Albany has analyzed dozens of agency FOIL logs and found they rarely include specific information about whether records were provided and how long it took. (Many agencies simply note a request has been “closed.”)
The letter is below.
November 25, 2020
NYS Committee on Open Government VIA EMAIL
Department of State
One Commerce Plaza
99 Washington Avenue, Suite 650
Albany, NY 12231
Re: We believe the FOIL process in NYS is failing and COOG must work to fix this.
Dear New York State Committee on Open Government,
Our organizations support a robust Freedom of Information Law. We believe FOIL is the single most important tool available to the public to promote government transparency. Our groups collectively make large numbers of FOIL requests every year and have deep experience with the FOIL process and what works and does not work.
Among us are groups that have analyzed dozens of agency FOIL logs, tracked thousands of FOIL requests and spoken to numerous state and local FOIL officers.
We appreciate COOG’s ongoing work to strengthen FOIL through legislation recommended in the COOG annual report and by issuing advisory opinions. This said, our groups feel great frustration at the overall FOIL process in New York State. The ugly reality is that information requested via FOIL frequently takes six months to a year to be provided, and delays of 18 months to two years are common. Worse, the information that is provided is often incomplete and not what was requested.
We note that these massive delays and endless wrangling with agencies far precede the COVID-19 epidemic.
There has been regular press coverage about massive FOIL delays and agencies arbitrarily withholding information, and we agree with the position articulated by COOG chair Franklin Stone that endless FOIL delays deeply undermine FOIL.
We strongly urge COOG to flag the issue of significant FOIL delays, incomplete compliance and improper denials in its 2020 annual report and to develop basic performance measurements to more objectively determine if agencies are complying with legal deadlines for providing information requested under FOIL. It is important to turn the overwhelming and widespread anecdotal reports of FOIL delays and denials that lack a basis in law into an accurate and detailed trove of research which can be used to identify areas where performance can be improved.
Common Cause New York
Laura Ladd Bierman
League of Women Voters New York State
National Freedom of Information Coalition
Paul Wolf, Esq.
New York Coalition for Open Government
New York News Publishers Association
New York Public Interest Research Group