New York state's Freedom of Information Law is a vital tool for the public to be able to know what its government officials are doing. Starting with its basic presumption that records should be accessible except under specific circumstances, FOIL is crucial at curbing government secrecy and, as a result, government misconduct.
But as valuable as FOIL is to members of the public, which includes news media organizations like The Citizen, there are aspects of the same law that can actually work against the goal of a public that's informed in a timely manner.
That's because FOIL also has some timing provisions that allow those who wish to keep information from the public to delay disclosure, even if they fully know that such information cannot be legally withheld.
As a result, it's important for our elected leaders in Albany to take action when disingenuous FOIL delay tactics emerge. Fortunately, the state Senate and Assembly did just that during the recently completed 2019 legislative session.
In the first few days of June, both houses approved a bill that will expedite the court appeal process when a private entity is challenging a lower court ruling that a record should be released. These are cases that happen when the government is set to release a public record, but someone with a vested interest in keeping that information secret takes legal action.
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In essence, the Legislature's measure requires that appeals in these types of case get preference from the appellate divisions, which are the state's mid-level appeals courts, and heard in an expedited manner. Specifically, it requires that such appeals be put on calendars for argument within 45 days.
"Often, commercial enterprises initiate these proceedings to cause delays and prevent the release of records that could affect a business deal or other action," the legislative memo with the Senate's bill explains. "Ensuring that these proceedings are brought on for argument in an expedited manner will prevent the use of these challenges as a delay tactic."
Now that measure has the blessing of the Legislature, it must be delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his review. We urge lawmakers to get it to him quickly — there's no good reason to delay sending the governor a bill that's aimed at preventing delays. And we urge the governor to put his signature on it. FOIL will be a little stronger and the public can be better informed.
The Citizen editorial board includes interim publisher Thomas Salvo, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.