Editorial: No reason required to seek records

Don't give in to government intimidation when seeking public documents
Mayor Dayton King.
Mayor Dayton King.

The next time you ask for information from the government and they respond by asking you why you want it, tell them it’s none of their damn business.

There’s nothing in the state Freedom of Information Law that in any way compels a citizen to reveal the reason for seeking public information.

The release of public information is a straight factual transaction. And the mere act of asking for a reason is an act of intimidation.

An example of that happened in Gloversville last week, when Brandon Rowback, the son of mayoral candidate Bill Rowback, sought emails exchanges between Mayor Dayton King and City Clerk Jennifer Mazure. He also sought the mayor’s financial disclosure forms, mileage reports and other information.

When Brandon Rowback approached the council, the mayor — who faces a primary challenge from the elder Rowback —  specifically asked him what he wanted the information for and offered to answer any questions Brandon might have as an alternative to providing the documents. 

The mayor’s line of questioning was inappropriate and undeserving of a response.

Any kind of request or demand for justification by a government official puts the citizen seeking the records in the position of defending his request, perhaps intimidating him into withdrawing it or modifying it.

Here’s the rule: If a government body maintains the record and if it doesn’t fall under the reasons why a government may legally deny access to a record, they have to give it to you.

There’s nothing in the law that allows a government body to deny a record because officials don’t want to you to have it or because it might embarrass the government entity or an individual associated with it. There’s also nothing in there that says a citizen has to accept an official’s verbal explanation instead.

If you want to build a case against the government body, gather information for a political campaign, do research, or even if you just need something to line the bottom of a bird cage, that’s your business, not the government’s.

And while governments can take a reasonable time to assemble and prepare records for disclosure, they can’t delay the release indefinitely as a way to effectively deny access. All the rules for the release of information are spelled out in the law for all to read.

As long as you’re legally entitled to a record, pay the requisite fees for copying and other tasks as determined under the law, they have to hand over the documents — no questions asked.

If they ask for a reason, they’ve crossed the line.

It’s your right to know what your government is doing. It’s not their right to know why you want to know.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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