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The New York State Freedom Of Information Law (FOIL)

hqdefaultI received a number of emails and letters about how people can make use of the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) following my recent column on the investigation by the Press Club of Long Island into compliance with FOIL by governments and government agencies on Long Island.
FOIL, enacted by the state in 1974, and the federal statute on which it based, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which took effect in 1967, are used extensively by journalists—but you don’t have to be a reporter to utilize FOIL or FOIA.
Indeed, as New York State’s FOIL declares, “A free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.”
But there is a procedure that needs to be followed.
It first should be noted that counties, cities, towns, villages, among other governmental entities, must abide by state Freedom of Information statutes. As the publication “Your Right to Know, New York State’s Open Government Laws,” available online from the Committee on Open Government of the New York State Department of State at https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/pdfs/right2know.pdf explains, FOIL covers “all units of state and local government in New York State, including state agencies, public corporations and authorities, as well as any other governmental entities performing a governmental function for the state or for…units of local government in the state.”
As to the records that can be obtained, FOIL defines this as “any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced” by a government or government agency and this includes tape recordings and these days computer files.
As to how you can ask for a record, you have to be specific—not on a fishing expedition. People—and, as noted, not only journalists can do this—must “reasonably describe,” says FOIL, what is being sought in a letter or now an email. Every government or government agency covered by FOIL is required by it to maintain a “subject matter list.” This “is not a compilation of every record an agency has in its possession, but rather is a list of the subject or file categories under which records are kept.”
There’s a charge to you for the photocopying —and this can be no more than 25 cents per page. And there are deadlines. “Within five business days of the receipt of a record reasonably described, the agency must make the record available, deny access in writing giving the reasons for denial, or furnish a written acknowledgement of receipt of the request and a statement of the approximate date when the request will be granted or denied,” says “Your Right to Know.” “The approximate date ordinarily cannot exceed 20 business days.”
The letter or email you send should be addressed to the “Records Access Officer” at the government or government agency from which you are seeking records. You should open up by writing: “Under the provisions of the New York Freedom of Information Law, Article 6 of the public Officers Law, I hereby request records or portions therof pertaining to”—and then be as specific as you can be in describing what kind of information you are seeking.
You should go on to note, “If there are any fees for copying the records requested, please inform me before filling the request” or you might also write “please supply the records without informing me if the fees are not in excess of” and put down a figure.
You should close by writing: “If for any reason any portion of my request is denied, please inform me of the reason for the denial in writing.”
There are “deniable records”—records that are “exempted” from disclosure through FOIL. These include records which “if disclosed” would “result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” “impair present or imminent contract awards, or collective bargaining negotiations,” involve “trade secrets,” “interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings” or “deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication.”
If you are denied a record, there is an appeal process that includes going to court. And FOIL permits “a court, in its discretion, to award reasonable attorney’s fees when a person challenging a denial of access to records in court substantially prevails.”
Moreover, the Committee for Open Government is there to assist you. Its address is:
NYS Committee on Open Government, Department of State, One Commerce Plaza, 99 Washington Avenue, Suite 650, Albany, NY 12231. Its telephone number is (518) 474-2518. Its online contact page is at https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/contact.html And its long-time executive director is the extraordinarily helpful Robert J. Freeman, an attorney.

Filed in: Suffolk Closeup

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