The only weapon to enforce New York’s Freedom of Information Law is embarrassment.
Many of you will find that hard to believe.
Why would anyone write a law where there are no repercussions for violating it?
No fines, no penalties, nothing. It makes no sense.
So when a municipality drags its feet on a request for public information, or simply rejects a request outright, we in the newspaper business have two recourses: sue or embarrass public officials with a strongly worded editorial, reminding them they are breaking the law.
Unfortunately, politicians seem less and less embarrassed by these editorials while keeping more and more information secret.
Late last year, the city of Glens Falls refused to release a public report regarding the firing of its assessor. The Post-Star decided to sue.
We thought we had a good case.
But when we asked our attorney to include a provision to force the city to pay our attorney fees if we won, he balked, saying it was unlikely any judge would award us attorney fees.
We insisted, and the attorney included that provision.
Not only did we win our lawsuit, forcing the city to make the report public, but the judge forced the city to pay our attorney fees.
There were repercussions for the city beyond embarrassment.
On Monday, the state Senate voted 62-0 to approve a bill that would require public agencies sued over the Freedom of Information Law to pay attorney’s fees when the plaintiffs prevail.
After all these years, FOIL may be given some teeth.
The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican in western New York, who explained the logic of the bill to the Times-Union.
“If state agencies have reasonable grounds under the law to deny a FOIL request, so be it ... but if they don’t, and they don’t comply with the law, it just seems terribly unfair that somebody on the other side who is following the law should have to be harmed because of it when they’d done nothing wrong.”
The only thing stopping the bill from becoming law is Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Since Gov. Cuomo promised his administration would be the most transparent ever, you’d think it would be a done deal.
But that is not the case.
After the same bill passed the Legislature in 2015, Gov. Cuomo vetoed it
The Cuomo administration has mandated that state agencies cannot give out basic information to the news media without it first being approved by the governor’s office.
That is often true of FOIL requests as well.
Gov. Cuomo has talked a good game about transparency, but his administration rarely walks the walk.
The governor has an opportunity to make amends by signing this bill and giving FOIL teeth for the first time in its history.
It is the right thing to do.
It is the democratic thing to do.
When public officials refuse to follow the law, there should be stiff penalties beyond embarrassment.
This bill finally does that and Gov. Cuomo should sign it immediately.
Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Robert Forcey, Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle and citizen representatives Dan Gealt and George Nelson.