Despite the glaring light of public scrutiny, some local governments eschew transparency in their decision-making process and/or utilization of taxpayer dollars. To combat this, the aptly named “Sunshine Week” initiative going on through March 17 attempts to shed light on the importance of an open government and the public’s right to access information that is pertinent to them.
Several laws protect this basic right to obtain records from public agencies.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—enacted in 1967—allows any member of the public to access any federal records, except those protected from public disclosure. In New York State, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) allows citizens to access records of any government agency.
This week, in honor of “Sunshine Week,” 12-year Mamaroneck resident Suzanne McCrory was recognized as a Local Hero for her efforts to bring transparency to local government in the Village of Mamaroneck (VOM).
McCrory—a former Government Accountability Office (GAO) Auditor for 17 years— spent her career as a watchdog for Congress, evaluating Federal programs.
It was precisely this background that sharpened McCrory’s instincts toward the detection of potential government malfeasance in her own town.
In 2006, during a controversial land use decision in the VOM, she made a FOIL request for the financial disclosure statement of Planning Board chair Larry Fraioli, who was also owner of several commercial properties in the area. Her request was denied. A second request for legal bills of the Special Counsel to the Zoning Board was partially provided. She sued the village for access to the records while representing herself and won.
“If we’re truly a democracy, we want people to understand we don’t want to hide information,” she said.
A second lawsuit against the village ensued at the beginning of 2011 when McCrory again attempted to obtain records during the discovery process of a $30 million lawsuit against the village by the (MBYC).
“I was denied in a blanket fashion,” she said, adding that the village repeatedly insisted that all requested records were stamped confidential and were thus not available for public release, which was later proven to be a false proclamation. She eventually obtained access in October of 2011 and the village was ordered to pay her court costs.
“If you’re not embarrassed you won’t try to keep secrets,” she said.
Part of the problem confounding the process is the lack of consequences for municipalities that fail to administer FOIL, says McCrory. Although citizens have the option to sue local governments that refuse to provide access to public records, most do not exercise this oft-pricy and time-consuming option for obvious reasons.
Admittedly, says, McCrory, “It’s an expensive hobby.”
“No one has the time or energy to tell the story.”
But for many members of the public, as long as basic services such as trash pick-up continue, they may not be aware of how or what their tax dollars are being spent on, said McCrory.
“They [local government] think the residents are antagonists—the government belongs to all of us," she said.