EDITORIAL: Deny. Delay. Pay. Government’s game of secrecy

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Call it the old government “Deny, Delay and Pay” game.

First deny a citizen the public records he’s seeking. Then when it’s clear the government has to turn over the records, delay the release, perhaps indefinitely. Then dare the citizen to pay to take you to court.

We’re not talking about Gov. Cuomo and his nursing home records. We’re talking about a local person in a local town, just seeking basic information about how his government is spending his tax dollars.

For the past seven months, Rotterdam resident Robert Godlewski, a former town board member and deputy supervisor, has been seeking contracts related to the town’s hiring of two law firms.

Back in July of last year, the town approved two contracts for the firms, but neglected to say how much the town was paying for the services or exactly what services the firms were needed to perform.

So he filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for the information.

Seems like a pretty reasonable request.

The state Freedom of Information Law lists several reasons why a government can legally withhold information from a citizen. But nowhere does it say that contracts signed for work performed can be withheld.

But the town apparently didn’t see it that way. Reasonable that is.

First, the town denied access to the records saying they were interagency memos. Hogwash. A contact that costs taxpayer money can’t be hidden that way. Otherwise, governments could use that excuse to withhold any outside spending arrangement.

Back in November, the town’s appeals officer agreed with Mr. Godlewski about the public nature of the contracts and the costs. But as of Friday, he’d only received the information about one of the firms.

Given the town’s non-response to the second of his requests, he considered taking the town to court. But filing a so-called Article 78 action, an appeal of a government decision to a court, is expensive. Mr. Godlewski was quoted a price of about $3,000.

That’s usually where ordinary citizens who don’t have unlimited time or money give up. The result is government wins by forfeit and the records are never disclosed.

Deny. Delay. Pay.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

We’ve said it a zillion times, and we’ll say it a zillion-and-one. Government belongs to the people. And when it comes to records and meetings, government is supposed to act on the presumption of openness.

That’s not what’s happening here.

Mr. Godlewski’s experience is much more common that not. It’s not right.

And the only way for citizens to gain access to government is for them to keep fighting, to keep appealing, to keep making a fuss, and to keep lobbying state lawmakers to put more teeth into the transparency laws.

The old Deny, Delay and Pay game.

It’s not really a game.

But the citizens are usually the losers.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

One Comment

Bernard ONeil

This is a problem at all levels of government. We need more teeth in the FOIL. Except for very limited documents the public should have access to all information or documents created. There should be no executive privilege on information. The onus should be on government to prove why information cannot be shared. The legal fees paid to access information that should have been readily disclosed should be paid by the agency that does not disclose and the individual making that decision. All information produced by the government belongs to the people.

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