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No, officials can’t make up their own FOIL rules

Your Right to Know

No, officials can’t make up their own FOIL rules

We newspaper people are always in competition for scoops and readers.

But when it comes to demanding transparency from our government officials, we’re all on the same team.

So this little reminder to public officials and citizens about the Freedom of Information Law comes courtesy of Gwendolyn Craig, a reporter at The Post-Star in Glens Falls, who tweeted on Monday:

A town attorney told me tonight that if I want to file a “for real FOIL” it should be mailed and not emailed. Also had someone say he didn’t respond to my appeal bc he got sick of me and stopped responding.”

Yeah, none of what they said is true or legal.

And if anyone should know the law, it’s a town attorney, part of whose job it is to advise elected officials on their obligations under FOIL and the Open Meetings laws.

First off, there’s no such thing as a “for real FOIL.”

There is no specific form to fill out or format to follow.

But to make sure you get the information you’re seeking, the state Committee on Open Government offers a template that citizens can use to help them file their requests.

Second, FOIL requests can be sent by snail mail, hand-delivery, government website or electronically via email. As long as it's legible and it gets to the record keeper, it’s legitimate.

Third, there’s no limit on the number of FOIL requests citizens can make. Public officials can’t start denying you records just because they get sick of you sending them requests. "You're being a pest," is not listed anywhere in the law as an exemption from disclosure. (I checked.)

Government officials have an obligation to follow the law, regardless of who files the request, a reporter or a citizen, or how often they file them.

Other public officials have told people that if you file a formal FOIL request, they won’t honor it. But if you ask them for the document, they say, they will honor it.

Again, that’s nonsense, and has no basis in the law.

It’s certainly always easiest to ask for a document. It saves everyone time and effort.

But there should be nothing detrimental about submitting a written (paper or electronic) FOIL request. In fact, submitting a FOIL request does a number of things to help ensure you get your document.

First, it starts the clock on the government response time and appeal process. The law is very specific about how long public officials have to respond to FOIL requests and how long they have to fill them or deny them.

Second, it ensures that both you and the government official know exactly what documents you’re seeking so that there’s no misunderstanding that could result in denial or delay in the release of records.

And third, it creates a paper trail so that officials can’t claim you never requested the documents you said you were seeking or that you requested something different than what they claim.

So there are a couple of lessons here.

Become familiar with the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law, and don’t rely on some government official, even an attorney, to dictate your rights to you. They might not be familiar with the law. Or more likely, they have an ulterior motive in steering you wrong -- such as that they really don't want to give you the records you're seeking.

And always prepare and submit a FOIL request in writing, even if it’s just to back up a verbal request. That way, public officials like this one can’t randomly choose what parts of the law they'll follow and which ones they won't.

If you’re ever treated like this by a government official, email a reporter at your local newspaper and let them know.

And as always, you can email me directly at [email protected], and I’ll expose them.

You have a right to know. Don’t let anyone deprive you of that right.