By Paul Wolf
The New York State Freedom of Information Law allows citizens to obtain copies of government records.
In 2009, after not receiving adequate responses to several FOIL requests, the editor of The Buffalo News wrote a column directed to Mayor Brown stating:
“The law is clear. When we request city records, you must provide them, completely and in a timely manner.
“But you aren’t exactly following the law at the moment.
“So, with all due respect, Mayor, cut it out.”
It is astonishing that such a column had to be written. In addition to giving The Buffalo News a hard time about providing public documents, the Brown administration in 2010 forced the Common Council to submit FOIL requests to obtain information about the city’s Block Grant budget.
In November 2011, Buffalo’s former director of strategic planning, Timothy Wanamaker, pleaded guilty to using a city credit card for personal expenses totaling $30,000. Over a period of 15 months, The Buffalo News filed several FOIL requests with the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. requesting Wanamaker’s travel and expense account records.
The News never received the requested records. If Brown is not going to operate city government transparently, then the Common Council needs to implement the following policy changes:
• Strengthen the oversight of FOIL responsiveness. Adopt legislation to require monthly reporting to the Common Council regarding the status of all FOIL requests, as well as annual reporting to the public.
• Provide training. Records access officers should receive annual training on FOIL compliance, which is available at no cost through the New York State Committee on Open Government.
• Ensure greater accountability. Conduct semi-annual reviews of each department/agency’s FOIL compliance.
• Adopt an open government policy. Mandate that all city agencies must proactively publish commonly requested records online.
• Engage concerned citizens. Form a citizens advisory board dedicated to making city government more open.
In addition to policy changes by the Common Council, the city comptroller could conduct an audit of how FOIL requests are being handled. Under the City Charter, the comptroller has the authority to conduct not only financial audits, but performance audits to determine whether laws are being complied with and intended results are being achieved.
Non-compliance with a law whose purpose is to provide citizens information should not be tolerated. The Common Council and city comptroller should act.
Paul Wolf is the president and founder of the Center For Reinventing Government.