Mayor de Blasio has touted his administration’s transparency. In some ways, it is indeed easier now to keep tabs on what city government is doing than ever before, what with NYC OpenData and the mayor’s disclosure of his meetings with lobbyists. On other fronts, like the novel interpretation of the law on disclosure of police disciplinary files known as 50-a, the de Blasio administration has reduced transparency.
Those are the changes. Then there are the things that remain the same.
One of these is the tendency of city agencies to take so much time answering a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request you wonder if you will start receiving Social Security benefits before you receive a response. More important, you worry that the story will be rendered moot, or scooped by someone else, or just too old to matter by the time you get the documents state law says you’ve a right to have.
This is not a new problem. Starting in 2006, it took me several years to get from the FDNY the fatal incident reports that facilitated our 2011 investigation of line-of-duty fatalities. There is a FOIL request I sent to the Police Department in 2007 that was technically never resolved; I just gave up on it. At the same time, it’s never been a problem that affected all agencies. Even under Mayor Bloomberg, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development always responded quickly.
An agency is supposed to take each FOIL request and see if the relevant documents exist and whether there is any exemption to the law’s presumption of disclosure that might block their release, or require some redaction. Then they’re supposed to explain that ruling to the person who sent the request, who can appeal the decision if they disagree with it (I did this, and won, with the Office of Medical Examiner in 2010, but usually I lose).
Last September, I FOILed the Department of Education for records related to a story we broke about tainted food (specifically: moldy pizza) in school cafeterias. A couple weeks later I received a letter that read:
This letter concerns the above-referenced Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. Pursuant to section VI.B of Chancellor’s Regulation D-110, due to the volume and complexity of requests we receive and process, and to determine whether any records or portions thereof will be subject to redactions permitted under Public Officers Law §87(2), additional time is required to respond substantively to your request. Accordingly, a response is currently anticipated by October 13, 2016.
I then received nearly identical letters on October 13, November 10, December 13, January 12, February 10, March 13, April 10, May 8, June 6, July 5, August 2, August 30 and yesterday, September 28. The only thing that changes is the date on which it is “anticipated” I might receive an answer. Yesterday’s note set the date forward to October 27.
(After another school-food issue arose, involving chicken with little bits of badness in it, I filed a separate FOIL. I have received “we’ll get back to you” notes from the DOE pushing an answer forward to May 1, May 30, June 27, July 26, August 23 and September 21. I have likely had more regular communication with the DOE’s Office of Legal Services over the past year than I have with my mom, but that’s more an indication of what a crappy son I am than anything else.)
FOILs take time and effort for an agency to approve, and New York City departments get a lot of them. If transparency is a value the city embraces, maybe it should invest more in making it a reality. According to city budget documents, the budget for the DOE’s office of legal affairs called for 71 staff positions in fiscal 2012. The budget for the current year calls for 69 staffers. So the headcount has been more or less flat even thought the DOE’s overall budget is $5 billion larger now.
That doesn’t seem to make sense. Maybe I’ll FOIL for an explanation.