Citizens often don't exercise their right to know about their government because they're under the false impression that it's really difficult or deeply involved.
Or that you have to be a reporter or a lawyer to do it.
Or that government officials know best what information should be released or not released and that they always act in the citizens' best interest.
Or that the effort will always cost a lot of money.
Government officials rely on all those perceptions to keep the public in the dark about their right to know. And that's why it's important for you to know your rights and know how to exercise them.
Let's start with the perceptions, last one first.
It will always cost a lot of money. Not necessarily. There is no filing fee for submitting a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. You simply prepare a request, which we'll show you how to do , and send it in. They have to deal with it; it’s part of their job. Each government body has a person assigned specifically do deal with FOIL requests.
The government can charge for records — up to 25 cents per photocopied page. And they can charge, in some cases, for the time it takes to process a record. But in many cases, the record can be sent to you electronically, at no expense. And you can usually go to the municipal building and view the record in person, taking notes or photos of the records you want at no charge.
The expense can come when the government denies a record and then denies your appeal. Then you could be dragged into a legal fight, which governments are happy to engage in because that's when most people back down. Legislation pending in Albany would discourage that practice by rewarding legal fees when government bodies frivolously deny a record.
Point two: Government officials know best and always operate in the public's interests. Not true. Not true. Often, public officials are not aware of their obligations under the law or will refused to honor it, even when shown the law. It's easier for government to operate in secret. It's more efficient, and it exposes them to less criticism for their actions. So when unchallenged, it's natural for government to operate in secret.
Point three: You need to be a reporter or lawyer to file a Freedom of Information Law request or challenge an attempt to close a meeting. Again, not true and not true.
Any citizen can file a FOIL request. Sample forms are available online (A link can be found today on The Gazette's Right to Know blog and an example can found to the right.) FOILs can be sent either via email to a government body or through a link provided on many government websites.
And any citizen can stand up and demand an explanation for why a meeting is being closed. If a board can't provide one of the few exceptions allowed under the law, they have to open it up.
The final falsehood: Filing a request is complex and involved. The state Committee on Open Government maintains a website (www.dos.ny.gov/coog) that explains in very clear language a summary of the law for citizens to follow.
Of course, with any legal challenge, the more deeply you get involved and the more vigorous the debate over whether a record needs to be released or a meeting needs to be open, the more involved it becomes.
But the government operates on the premise of openness. You have the right to know on your side.
Don't be afraid to use it.
Sample FOIL request
Records Access Officer:
Under the provisions of the New York Freedom of Information Law, Article 6 of the Public Officers Law, I hereby request records or portions thereof pertaining to (or containing the following): Attempt to identify the records in which you are interested as clearly as possible.
If my request appears to be extensive or fails to reasonably describe the records, please contact me in writing or by phone at: Address or phone number.
If there are any fees for copying the records requested, please inform me before filling the request (or: ... please supply the records without informing me if the fees are not in excess of $ amount).
As you know, the Freedom of Information Law requires that an agency respond to a request within five business days of receipt of a request. If for any reason any portion of my request is denied, please inform me of the reasons for the denial in writing and provide the name and address of the person or body to whom an appeal should be directed.
Street Address, City, State, ZIP code
To request records via email:
Include "FOIL Request" in the subject line of your email and add the following sentences to the letter above:
“Please email the following records if possible: Include as much detail about the record as possible, such as relevant dates, names, descriptions, etc.
Please send the records to the following email: Your email address.”