Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Let the sunshine in

Were the freedom of information sunshine,New York would probably be in the Dark Ages. While just a few miles east over the state border, the peace-loving woodchucks of the Green Mountain state bask in the warmth of the proverbial Information Age of Aquarius, a dark cloud of smog hangs in the stratosphere over the Empire State, often clogging the ebb and flow of public knowledge.

As news agencies around the nation laud the value of the federal Freedom of Information Act this week, significant gains remain to be made in New York’s various public offices, which sometimes use the law to slow or even obfuscate investigative journalism. Other times, reporting is stymied simply because the state government’s laws of what does and does not constitute public information are not up to snuff with the sunnier states of the union.

Take for instance the recently ruled homicide of a wayward teen lodged at the state-run detention center called the Tryon School for Boys in Fulton County, after he fought with a pair of orderlies. For months, reporters from various news agencies from around the state tried to learn the boy’s identity, only to be met by a local prosecutor who said his name was being withheld “at the request of the family.”

In many other states, reporters would have been able to track down a death certificate for the boy at the clerk’s office in whatever municipality he was pronounced dead. But in New York, death certificates are not considered public information and therefore are witheld.

Some may argue this is proper, as the grieving family members of the recently deceased might not want to contend with news cameras staked out at their home. But in this case, when the prosecutor identified 15-year-old Darryl Thompson of the Bronx as being the corpse plucked from Tryon four months earlier, it didn’t take much longer than a week for his mother to very publically lash out at the state.

Last week, she told the New York Times that her son was “murdered” by the Tyron staffers and demanded justice; which are not the words of a mother unwilling to talk with reporters. She not only gave a face to the killed boy, who previously was nothing more than a grim statistic in the records of untimely deaths at state-operated detention centers, but also told the Times the most tragic part of the story: her son was less than two short months away from being released from the facility.

True, there are reasonable arguments for withholding information in this case, as with many investigations. Most law enforcement officers will attest that investigating a case is a hell of a lot easier when the media circus isn’t in tow. And after all, Thompson's death was eventually divulged to the media without as much as a FOIL request.

In many other cases, however, information is withheld simply for the reason that these police agencies don’t feel like giving it out. The same goes for other governmental agencies, such as planning departments and zoning boards, which sometimes find it a lot easier to demand a “FOIL request” rather than simply forking over something as simple as a project file. If they demand a FOIL, they have 10 days to review the request and then either fulfill it or deny it; if the request is granted, the requesting news agency can end up paying a hefty sum for volumes of document copies they may not have even needed. If it's denied, then the request is headed for weeks of appeals before eventually landing in state Supreme Court.

But a more increasing trend among public offices is a sheer ignorance to the state’s Sunshine Laws. Often times, the part-time clerks and government workers in smaller municipalities simply don’t know what can and cannot be release, so therefore everything requires a FOIL request. Of course this can be contested and reversed, if a news editor with particularly colorful language fires back at the aforementioned government worker. Still, this takes time and effort. And when looming deadlines hang precariously overhead, time is a valuable commodity.

Even more alarming is how the general public contends with the FOIL-happy governmental entities of New York. While large news agencies can readily afford to fire off swarms of requests and then fight them in court, the general public isn’t nearly as likely to jump through as many hoops. When asked to submit a FOIL, some of the less-media savvy folk would probably return with a roll of Reynolds Wrap rather than the appropriate request. Although this might help one protect themselves from alien mind-control devices, aluminum foil is rather useless in prying information from the county clerk's office.

The bottom line is that information produced through the use of taxpayer dollars should be readily accessible to the public; hence the age-old phrase, “for the people and by the people.” Unfortunately, as the media grows stingier with their allocations in the news room and as the public become increasingly acquiescent to information refusals by governmental entities, that lingering cloud of smog grows a bit thicker and darker each day.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wish we could FOIL the meeting 'minutes' that Moreau Supervisor Harry Gutheil had after Clifton Park Supervisor Philip Barrett voted against the Hudson River Water 'Plan'(threatening not to approved toilet paper expenses for Clifton Park).....Last year, wasn't it Gutheil who refused to pay for a $100.00 cake that had plenty of takers, saying it was too expensive ?
Too bad we couldn't FOIL Jasper Nolan's conversations with his puppets....

8:25 PM  

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