In early October, 20 people died at the intersection of Routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie when a stretch limo carrying friends celebrating their birthdays failed to stop.
Before and since the crash, thousands of drivers have encountered that same intersection, which has a local reputation for being dangerous.
Don’t you think as a driver, and as a citizen, that you have a right to know what statistics are maintained by the state Department of Transportation on this intersection and what viewpoints and conclusions engineers and other officials have drawn about its safety?
We think you have that right.
The state thinks you don’t.
On Oct. 10, we filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request seeking “all records, including emails to and from the DOT resident engineer in Schoharie County and to and from the regional traffic engineer, concerning safety or concerns about safety or accidents at the intersection of state Routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie.”
More than two months later, the state has refused to release the information.
The state Freedom of Information Law is predicated on the presumption of transparency. When in doubt about whether to release documents to the public, government officials have an obligation to err on the side of disclosure.
The state has decided instead to err on the side of secrecy.
One reason given for denying our FOIL request was that the information was compiled for law enforcement purposes and could affect an investigation. It's a common catch-all justification governments use to justify keeping information from the public, even if the public having the same information won't have any actual impact on their investigation.
So let's hear it. Explain to the public exactly how releasing information already prepared by state officials and known within the DOT about this intersection is going to impede a police investigation into the crash. There’s no reason police couldn’t continue to pursue their criminal investigation once this information was disclosed. So disclose it.
Another reason cited for denial was that the information we sought fell under the exemption for opinions and conclusions. While state officials do indeed have the right under the FOIL to withhold opinions, evaluations and conclusions, why should they in this case?
The desire to protect someone’s reputation or employment due to poor decision-making is not a legitimate reason for withholding information from the citizens. As taxpayers, we pay these experts to interpret data and make judgments. We have a right to know what they think.
Even if opinions can legally be withheld, any statistical data collected must be disclosed. So at the very least, that should have been released. It wasn’t. Why not?
Whenever government narrowly interprets the law to justify withholding information, it not only deprives citizens of the ability to make informed decisions about the performance of their public officials, it also breeds mistrust.
We use this intersection. It’s our lives that are at stake. We have a right to know what our government knows about it.