The Saratoga Springs Housing Authority may have hit on a novel way to get back at its critics — a hit in their wallets.
John Kaufmann, one of the housing authority’s most persistent critics, was recently hit with a bill for $394.25, after the SSHA responded voluminously to what he thought was a reasonable Freedom of Information Law request for documents.
Kaufmann, who began dogging the authority after questions arose in 2011 about the handling of a bedbug infestation, wanted copies of contracts for the authority’s legal and auditing services. As a citizen, he’s entitled to them, just like you and I are.
Kaufmann filed a FOIL request last September; the authority didn’t get back to him until February, and did so with enough loose material for two Russian novels or maybe three campaign-specific Civil War histories — a total of 1,577 pages. Along with them came a bill for $394.25, based on 40-year-old state law allowing the authority to charge 25 cents per copied page for FOIL requests.
“They sent me a huge box of grossly extraneous documents,” said Kaufmann, a former executive director of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council who began investigating because of the bedbug complaints.
The box contained duplicate pages, photocopies of pages from the Federal Register and from instruction manuals, with Kaufmann estimating no more than 200 pages that were relevant to his actual request. He said the actual documents he was asking for weren’t there.
Kaufmann this week filed an appeal with the authority over the $394 bill, and he even talked about going to court. “I have no intention of paying the money,” he said.
I reached out to Housing Authority board chairman Eric J. Weller, with no luck.
Exorbitant bills for complying with FOIL requests violate at least the spirit if not the letter of the law.
“An applicant should not be required to pay for documents that were not requested, and an agency should make a reasonable effort to reduce duplicative copies,” wrote Camille S. Jobin-Davis, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government.
The dust-up over FOIL is just the latest in a series of controversial dealings at the authority, which owns the Stonequist, Jefferson Terrace and Vanderbilt Terrace
Apartments — a total of 339 low-income rental units, in a city notorious for its lack of affordable housing.
What started in late 2011 with questions about whether the authority had properly dealt with a bedbug issue at the Stonequist Apartments subsequently morphed — with Kaufmann among the chief prodders — into questions about authority Executive Director Ed Spychalski’s nearly $145,000 salary, his hiring of relatives, questionable travel expenses and whether the City Council should be reviewing the authority’s staff salaries. In the past, Weller has contended everything is being done properly, and the authority answers only to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Last year, Spychalski announced plans to retire at the end of this year. Paul Feldman, formerly of the Schenectady Housing Authority, joined the SSHA last month as deputy housing director, and Spychalski’s presumed heir.
But Kaufmann said he’s concerned that Spychalski’s departure won’t change the broader culture within the authority, and new problems will arise.