Sunshine Week is coming up next week. It’s the annual celebration of access to public information, the electorate’s right to know what government and other officials are actually doing in their public business, as opposed to what they say they are doing.
That right is expressed in the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which is both a tool for journalists and the public and an aspiration to real democracy. The problem is, officials can play games and skirt the law if they really want to — and, unfortunately, some want to.
A recent, egregious example involved the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority. Back in September, it received a FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] request from a local resident named John Kaufmann seeking information about its legal and auditing services.
People at the authority, from Executive Director Ed Spychalski to board Chairman Eric Weller, aren’t real fond of Kaufmann. He’s the guy who started using FOILs to look into the authority’s affairs after a bedbug infestation at one of its apartment complexes in 2011, and found a lot of questionable stuff, including a sweetheart contract with Spychalski, nepotism, conflicts of interest, etc.
This prompted efforts by the City Council to rein in the authority, as well as a critical audit by the state comptroller that found, among other things, questionable travel expenses for Spychalski and others. The authority conceded a little to these outside agencies, but not much — basically telling them we don’t answer to you, we answer only to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
So it wasn’t unexpected when it stonewalled Kaufmann’s September FOIL request for documents such as contracts, bidding procedures, invoices and documentation of hours.
And when it finally did respond, in February, it was with what journalists call a “document dump,” a volume of material that was far more than what Kaufmann had asked for and included mostly duplicative and extraneous stuff. This included information on self-sufficiency tactics for families and how to protect against lead in homes; public housing construction guidelines and blank tenant applications — even copies of his own emails and FOIL requests.
Kaufmann estimated that only 200 out of 1,577 pages were actually responsive to his request. And with it all came a bill for $394.25, based on the allowable charge of 25 cents per page. But that’s 25 cents per relevant page. The law says that “an applicant should not be required to pay for records that were not requested, and an agency should make a reasonable effort to reduce duplicative copies.”
This was clearly harassment. Kaufmann says he won’t pay, as he shouldn’t, and threatened to sue for attorney’s fees, as he should. The Freedom of Information Act allows for them in cases like these. The authority should pay for its indifference to and obstruction of the law.