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Groups Oppose Changes to NYS FOIL Law

Changes to New York's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) are being debated in Albany. (Nitant23/Wikimedia Commons)
Changes to New York's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) are being debated in Albany. (Nitant23/Wikimedia Commons)
March 15, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. - Advocates of greater government transparency in New York are opposing two proposed changes to the state's Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget bills.

When people or organizations are forced to sue for access to public records, said John Kaehny, executive director of the group Reinvent Albany, they almost always win. But one proposed change would make it harder for them to recover attorneys' fees.

"The main reason the public won't go to court is because of the cost of the attorneys' fees," he said, "and unfortunately, we see this bill as a step backwards that will essentially weaken FOIL."

Organizations including the New York Public Interest Group, the NYCLU and Common Cause New York have sent an open letter to legislative leaders asking them to significantly improve or reject the proposals.

The second proposal would create an exemption in the law for information about what is termed "critical infrastructure." According to Kaehny, the law already says any information that would endanger the life or safety of any person isn't subject to disclosure.

"The concern here," he said, "is that this exception will be used as an excuse not to provide the public with records about big infrastructure projects like, say, the Tappan Zee Bridge."

With the growing number of state elected officials being forced from office for corruption and unethical behavior, Kaehny said, the Freedom of Information Law is the most basic transparency tool the public has.

"You would think that the governor and the Legislature would want to strengthen that in reaction to public dismay and anger over the corruption scandals," he said, "but that's not what's happening right now."

Kaehny pointed out that, perhaps ironically, this is officially "Sunshine Week" - when the need for public access to public information is highlighted and celebrated nationally.

The open letter is online at us4.campaign-archive1.com.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY