In light of the controversy over Gov. Cuomo’s delay in releasing nursing-home fatalities numbers, we asked the mayoral candidates how they would approach enforcing the Freedom of Information Laws. They were, for candidates, oddly quiet.
The controversy over the Cuomo administration’s withholding information about COVID-19 deaths is a reminder that transparency isn’t about releasing information when it’s convenient, but when someone asks for it—even if the timing and context make such disclosures politically awkward, or practically difficult. In fact, the times when it is least advantageous for governments to show their hand are usually when the public most needs to see what they are holding.
The nursing-home dust-up is not the first episode like this, and it won’t be the last—nor is Andrew Cuomo the only politician ever accused of failing to heed freedom of information laws. It’s happened on the city level, too. A lot.
Shortly after Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, City Limits filed test FOIL requests with city agencies and found spotty adherence to the deadlines built into the state’s open records law. In response to those and other concerns, de Blasio did take some steps to improve the mechanics of FOIL in the city. But he also tried to evade FOIL through his infamous “agents of the city” dodge, and his administration adopted a particularly tight interpretation of the 50-a law on police discipline disclosure. What’s more, FOILs—like one that we sent to the schools system in 2017—still often took forever and a day to get resolved.
We investigated, and learned that despite significant increases in the budgets and headcounts at many city agencies, the city still only devoted skeleton staff to processing FOIL requests. A 2019 City Limits survey revealed other problems with the process, so a group of media outlets wrote to Council Speaker Corey Johnson asking him to investigate the system and consider devoting more resources to it. Nothing happened.
A key question for the 2021 mayoral candidates, then, is how they will run that system, and whether they see room for change. So, we asked them that question last Monday: How well does the freedom of information law work in New York City, and do you plan any changes to the FOIL system?
The answers we got from five candidates are here. We assume the responses from the others are, like so many FOILs we have filed over the years, somewhere out there.