Jim Henderson

Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. NYC Health & Hospitals is one of several agencies that reports having only a single staffer handling Freedom of Information Law requests.

 

Transparency has been a touchy topic for Mayor de Blasio. A champion of open government while serving as public advocate, he has been less willing to let the sunlight into City Hall as mayor. While de Blasio in 2014 launched a “FOIL Tracker” to gauge city compliance with the state’s freedom of information law, and later created the Open Records mechanism for submitting and following FOIL requests, he has also been unusually stingy with police records under the 50-a clause, and recently lost a bid to keep secret the communications between mayoral staff and the outside consultants he deemed “agents of the city.”

It is true that a lot of government information is now online via OpenData NYC and individual agency websites; in other words, you don’t need to request that stuff via FOIL anymore. But in a city with an $89 billion budget — and 13 agencies that each spend more than a billion dollars a year—there’s a lot to keep tabs on that is not automatically placed online.

Yet in many agencies with headcounts into the tens of thousands, only a handful of people are dedicated to the task of complying with Freedom of Information Law requests. As the size of government increases and the city’s population swells, that leaves barely a skeleton crew in charge of moderating the flow of information from one to the other.

City Limits asked 34 city agencies how many staff members were involved in processing FOIL inquiries.

Six (Health & Mental Hygiene, Law, Human Resources, Design & Construction, Information Technology & Telecommunications and Records & Information Services) didn’t bother to answer and a seventh (the NYPD) refused to cooperate.

Here is what the rest reported:

NYC Agency FOIL Staff
Department of Environmental Protection 28
Department of Transportation 15
Department of Education 8
Department of Buildings 7
Department of Parks and Recreation 5
Department of Homeless Services 5
Administration for Children’s Services 4
Department of Correction 4
Department of Housing Preservation and Development 3
New York City Housing Authority 3
Department of Probation 3
Department of Cultural Affairs 3
Department of Citywide Administrative Services 3
Department of Youth and Community Development 2
Department of Veterans’ Services 2
Department for the Aging 2
Department of Investigation 2
Fire Department 2
Department of Sanitation 2
Economic Development Corporation 1 to 3
NYC Health + Hospitals 1
Department of City Planning 1
Department of Finance 1
Landmarks Preservation Commission 1
Department of Small Business Services 1
New York City Emergency Management 1
Department of Consumer Affairs 1

The differences among the agencies could reflect different definitions of FOIL work: A spokesman at DEP, for instance, says that while 28 staffers handle FOIL as part of their regular job, some of those jobs involve more than FOIL. Still, it’s clear that two departments, DEP and Transportation, have made a deeper commitment.

Over the past 17 years, DOT’s FOIL staff has swelled from nine to 15. “We receive an extremely high volume of FOIL requests, totaling approximately 7,000 per year, or roughly 30 a day,” writes Scott Gastel, a spokesman for the agency, in an email. “Many of these requests take an individual staffer weeks to complete. The majority of the requests received are complex in nature or litigation-related and require our staff to seek multiple types of documents across numerous computer databases, many of which are non-compatible, legacy systems, as well as to search and retrieve hard copies of our records located at dozens of DOT facilities throughout the city.”

DEP’s large FOIL staffing also reflects a large number of requests, according to spokesman Ted Timbers . In addition, DEP’s multifaceted portfolio—the agency protects watersheds, delivers drinking supplies, processes sewage, enforces noise ordinances, processes water bills and more—means that a few staff in several different offices might spend part of their jobs dealing with FOIL.

Once you move beyond DEP and DOT, however, the 25 other agencies that responded reported an average 2.7 people devoted to FOIL.

(Ironically, the Police Department refused to answer our question about how many employees work on FOIL. The PD said it doesn’t reveal staffing numbers—although it has in the past said how many folks are assigned to counterterrorism or other, higher-profile work.)

Robert Freeman, the longtime head of the Committee on Open Government, says the FOIL staffing problem is not unique to the city. “I see it virtually every day,” he says. “State agencies and, especially, city agencies—in my opinion—have not devoted sufficient resources to dealing with FOIL.”

The problem is one of supply and demand: Governments are facing more FOIL requests than before. While technology has provided new tools for handling those inquiries, it has also created more material for FOIL officers to screen. Freeman cites this example: A person asks for email communications concerning some topic. “Due to our amazing search and retrieval mechanisms, we might pull up 1,000 emails. And we can do that in five minutes. But each of those has to be read,” to determine whether it can be released under FOIL, Freeman says. “And that takes time.”

Many governments, including New York City and state, are putting more information online outside of the FOIL system, and Freeman says much more of that could be done.

Part of the rationale of de Blasio’s Open Records tool is to try to avoid duplication in FOILs by allowing submitters to see what others have already asked for. Statistics provided by the Open Records tool, however, are not especially revealing about the overall impact of this approach. The performance data indicates that several agencies have closed more FOIL requests than were opened, possibly indicating that those stats include the closure of some FOILs submitted before the launch of the tool. The data also suggests a very uneven landscape. The NYPD is shown to have had 562 requests opened, and to have closed 1,901. But the Department of Corrections has closed only seven requests, while it had 48 opened.

Much has been written about de Blasio’s relationship with the press, which is—to say the least—not warm. The FOIL issue is bigger than that, however, because FOIL is a tool for all people. Reporters are frequent users, but not exclusive ones.

For his part, the mayor has repeatedly defended his record on transparency. As he has noted, some of the stiffest criticism he has received is fueled by revelations he has made voluntarily, like the donors to his now-shuttered nonprofit or the lobbyists he meets with.

Needless to say, FOIL is not the core mission of any city agency. Answering records requests won’t rival the importance of putting out fires, teaching kids, inspecting buildings or operating sewage plans, and in their staffing allocations, agencies have to respond to those other priorities first. But by not having adequate staff, FOIL response slows down, rendering the information significantly less valuable when it finally arrives. Whether this is a case of the city intentionally starving the beast or not, it does make it hard for agencies to uphold the spirit of the FOI law.

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