FOIL or foiled?

The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of government actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government…

…The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature therefore declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article.

– from the Legislative Declaration of NYS’ Freedom of Information Law

By Giovanna Righini with Tanya Garment

In 1974, legislation was approved to enact the original Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) in New York State. For the first time, the general public was granted right of access to government records. The law plays an important role in keeping government transparent and accountable and speaks eloquently to this end in its Legislative Declaration.

The process that the public may follow to obtain records is laid out by the New York State Committee on Open Government (COOG). Their website provides a wealth of information, including sample letter templates, information on access to agency records, required time lines, and advisory opinions. Since FOIL is somewhat fluid and, like any law, is subject to interpretation, it requires a good faith effort by both the public and the government to work. The following story details a lack of that effort on the part of the City of Kingston.

On April 15, 2020, Tanya Garment submitted a FOIL request to the City of Kingston for any and all email and text communications between and among Mayor Noble and various specific City employees regarding the proposed merger of Department of Public Works with the Parks & Recreation Department and the Environmental Education and Sustainability Coordinator’s role and office location, from March 1 to April 14, 2020. She made the request in order to find instructions to staff that would help her to understand the steps of the proposed merger’s process, particularly because the proposal would have provided the Mayor’s wife with a job promotion and substantial pay increase.

VIEW 4.15 FOIL Request

On April 20, Tanya was contacted by the City Clerk who asked, on behalf of Kingston’s Corporation Counsel, if the FOIL request could be closed out since the proposed merger had died in Council Committee. Because the Clerk expressed concern about the amount of work it would take to review all the emails, Tanya initially agreed over the phone to retract her request. A few hours later, however, after she’d had time to think about it, Tanya decided she didn’t want to retract the full request but was willing to reduce the scope of it by narrowing the time frame to April 1 through April 14, 2020. She put this in writing to both the City Clerk and Corporation Counsel’s Secretary by email, left a voicemail to that effect for the City Clerk and spoke directly to the Secretary about it. The very next day, her full original request was denied.

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