March 16, 2014

Editorial: Tackling issues of public access

Newspapers are out there fighting for your right to information.

We do it year-round — in little ways, like pressing schools to give us lists of board agenda items; and in big ways, by protesting illegally closed meetings and filing requests for documents that are being withheld.

Here are some of the access issues the media is focusing on during Sunshine Week, as explained by the New York State Publishers Association:

Public Employee Pension data: The public pays its government employees and should have the right to know where the money is going. However, a 2011 court decision confused “retiree” with “beneficiary” and ruled that public employee pension data could remain secret. Legislation (A.5171) would ensure that public employee pension data remains open to inspection.

Government-owned data and copyright: The bill 1700/S.4798 would curtail the ability of government agencies to claim copyright protection for records they create.

Timely appeals of Freedom of Information Law lawsuits: Legislation A.5306/S.2065 would require that appeals by agencies of FOIL requests be filed within days after the agency was served with papers. The sponsor memorandum says the bill “creates an expedited process for determining appeals of FOIL decisions. Under the present law, a denial of request for records may be overturned by a court, but the agency may file a notice of appeal and have up to nine months to perfect the appeal.”

Information relating to criminal investigations: A.5170/S.5975 would amend FOIL to curtail blanket denials of access to records on the grounds that they are in some way connected with a law-enforcement investigation.

Exemptions to FOIL for agricultural operations: The Senate is poised to pass legislation S.4904-AJA.8596-A, which would require agencies that receive requests for information about farms to notify the farm owner of the identity of the requestor. The Senate is also nearing passage of S.6222/A.9009, which would require agricultural producers to report the source of the water they use if it exceeds 100,000 gallons per day over a 30-day period and then closes that data to public inspection. These laws would create a backdoor exemption to FOIL.

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