EDITORIAL: Comptroller should audit state Health Department

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The state Health Department might want to change its name to the state Stealth Department, given the questionable way it’s handled the release of public documents in the last few years, particularly during the coronavirus epidemic.

When government boards act suspiciously evasive, there is a mechanism in state government to root out the concerns, identify the problems and make recommendations.

That’s an audit performed by the state Comptroller’s Office.

Questions over the accuracy and scope of Health Department records related to the pandemic have prompted several good government groups, including the New York News Publishers Association (NYNPA) and others, to ask the comptroller to audit the Health Department’s compliance with the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

They’re not just asking for an audit over the past year. The department’s questionable transparency has prompted the groups to seek an audit dating back to the beginning of 2015.

And speaking of questionable transparency, it would be in the public’s best interests if the comptroller’s office also considered auditing the FOIL compliance of other state agencies, and of the Cuomo Administration’s 2018 web-based open government initiative, Open FOIL NY.

It’s common knowledge among those who regularly seek public documents from state agencies that they do not always adhere to letter of the law, often throwing up obstacles through lengthy delays and unreasonable denials of record requests.

The comptroller has the authority to look into FOIL compliance, and has done so in the past. So this is not an unusual request.

Among them was an audit of the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA), released in October, that covered the previous three years of compliance.

That audit found, among other issues, that the authority lacked internal procedures for processing FOIL requests, failed to meet statutory deadlines for response in 26 of 111 FOIL requests, and even failed to respond to two requests completely – perhaps due the authority’s lack of formal method for keeping track of FOIL requests.

That’s the kind of information that a FOIL audit could uncover in the Health Department, publicly identifying the problems and putting the department on notice to make changes.

Among the groups seeking an audit in addition to the NYNPA are Reinvent Albany, BetaNYC, Common Cause New York, the League of Women Voters of New York State, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

Given the great public interest in all health data collected in connection with the coronavirus, and given the Health Department’s questionable forthrightness when it comes to requests for information in general, a complete and thorough audit of its Freedom of Information Law procedures is not only warranted, but overdue.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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