Despite the technological advances that have occurred within the last decade allowing people to readily access a plethora of information from the Internet, certain public and government records remain elusive to the community for reasons not always apparent. The Freedom of Information Law (FOIL)—a federal law enacted in 1978—grants anyone the right to view government records at their request, regardless of their affiliation.
“The League of Women Voters depend upon access to information as our main currency,” said Elisabeth Radow, president of the Larchmont/Mamaroneck League of Women Voters (LWV), a group that strives to educate the public about local issues as well as candidates running for office, so that they can make informed voting decisions.
The Committee on Open Government (COOG)—a New York State agency created in 1974—is available to the public to advise on issues or answer questions related to FOIL and the Open Meetings Law. Although the agency doesn’t have the jurisdiction to enforce the laws, members can attempt to resolve debates where rights under FOIL may be ambiguous.
The Open Meetings or “Sunshine” Law—enacted in 1977—gives the public the right to be present for meetings of government officials.
To underscore his point about the public need for government transparency, Bob Freeman, executive director for COOG, said that the agency has proffered approximately 24,000 legal opinions over the last 37 years to various members of the public, news media and government officials.
Beginning the public question and answer period, Stuart Tiekert, a Mamaroneck resident and frequent participant during the public portion of village board meetings, inquired about the requirements for advance notice of government meetings under the law.
The Open Meetings Law requires that public bodies—defined as two or more people that conduct public business and perform a governmental function such as village boards, town boards and school boards—give notice 72 hours prior to a meeting, but only if it’s been scheduled a week in advance. If the meeting is scheduled on shorter notice, the law is less stringent, requiring notice only to “the extent practicable.”
One exception to unlimited public access is executive sessions—the portion of public meetings where officials are permitted to exclude the public to discuss certain matters—however these discussions are limited to eight topics, as defined by the law. They include the medical/financial history of an individual and discussions regarding litigation. The complete list can be accessed on the COOG website here.
Also, noted Freeman, although the public has the right to attend meetings, government officials are not required under the law to allow public participation. In many towns, however, local boards do allot time for public comment despite the lack of legal precedent.
And, if you’ve heard that meeting minutes have to be approved before becoming available, Freeman said, it’s a myth. Under the Open Meetings Law, minutes must be made available within two weeks of the meeting.
Further, although citizen advisory and/or ad-hoc committee meetings may be attended by the public, they are exempted from being required to do so under the precedent if their discussion does not lead to the creation of any law.
Larchmont resident and LWV member Sue Hertz asked how the law would apply to public records in the form of e-mails and telephone calls.
“Since 1978, FOIL has included a broad definition of records,” said Freeman, continuing, “[including] any record in any physical form. The content determines what’s public and what’s not.”
Regarding items that could potentially be withheld from public view, Westchester County Legislator Judy Myers asked, “What significance does using the word confidential [have]?”
“It doesn’t mean a thing,” said Freeman, adding, “To my mind, confidential refers to those matters that can’t be disclosed based on statutory law.” Examples of confidential matters include public assistance records and medical records, among others.
Despite the steadfast laws in place, there may still be instances where people are denied access to repeated requests for records. In those cases, the law states that individuals have the right to appeal the decision within 30 days of the denial. The government office is then required—within 10 business days—to explain the denial in writing or to provide access to the records. If a request is denied a second time, the individual may bring the offending party to court under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.
But, there are some exceptions to what the public has access to.
They include records involving trade secrets, compilations for law enforcement purposes, and several others. A full list is available here on the COOG website.
Although public access to records is a vital part of government transparency, some municipalities still stubbornly resist the intrusion of constituents into their private realm. “Some agencies and government officials are beyond embarrassment,” said Freeman bluntly.
The solution is simple. “Vote them out of office,” he said.