June 30, 2012

In My Opinion: Restricted hours only for large requests


---- — This is to clarify certain issues that were raised in a recent Press-Republican editorial about the FOIL process.

To be clear, it is Town of Plattsburgh’s policy to allow anyone who wishes to FOIL information to do so during the hours that the Town Clerk’s Office is open. The town recognizes and respects the right of anyone to present a FOIL request; however, it also must take into consideration the rights of all its citizens.

First, the town is in possession of proprietary information (Social Security numbers, medical information, etc.) that is privileged information and may not be made available to the public. Therefore, when any request is made, before the information is turned over, it is essential that the information is reviewed to see if it contains any information that should not be released.

Second, we have an obligation to preserve town records. Not all of the records of the town are digitized. As a result, when requests are made to review numerous documents that are not in digital form, it is necessary to have a Town of Plattsburgh employee monitor the review of the records by the FOIL applicant.

Third, the law and opinions relating to the FOIL process must be read in conjunction with other laws. The rights associated with a person making a FOIL request do not trump the rights of other citizens seeking services from the town clerk.

The town clerk performs numerous services, including performing marriage ceremonies, issuance of licenses and permits and other related activities. The FOIL process is not meant to interfere with the normal functions of the town clerk.

As many of you may know, the town clerk’s position in the Town of Plattsburgh is part time and, as a result, often the town clerk is working alone. If he is involved in serving other citizens of the town, the individual with a FOIL request does not have the right to preempt the service being provided by the town clerk to another citizen.

It was pointed out in the editorial that the town will honor FOIL requests only on Mondays and Fridays. The time periods were set aside to accommodate people with large FOIL requests so those could be satisfied in an efficient manner. In literally every other aspect of life, appointments are made for the purpose of efficiency.

Individuals are free to come at any time the Town Clerk’s Office is open, but if the town clerk is in the process of performing another duty, the person would have to wait until the clerk is finished.

It is also important to point out that FOIL requests can vary in their nature. For example, a person wanting a copy of the agenda from the prior week’s Town Council meeting is a simple matter.

Many times, the requests are voluminous. For example, we recently received a request from a former councilman to review all of the vouchers for the year 2011. In that instance, we could provide him with copies but he prefers to review the original vouchers, which is his privilege. To honor our obligation of maintaining the archives, it is necessary to have a Town employee monitor him when he reviews the vouchers. For the year 2011, we had more than 3,000 vouchers, making the review process lengthy and expensive for the town.

The Monday and Friday appointments were instituted as a convenience for individuals with requests to review original documents. We have addressed any confusion with that expectation.

The editorial hopes people will be reasonable in making their requests, and that is the hope of the town, as well. However, under the current rules, it is impossible to segregate valid requests for information from “fishing expeditions.”

The one thing that is certain is that permitting people to review original copies of documents with the requisite monitoring that is necessary is an expensive and time-consuming process for all towns, but this obligation is one that will always be honored by the Town of Plattsburgh.