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Posted on 4/22/2013
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio today unveiled a “Transparency Report Card,” finding many agencies have failed to obey the law and make records public. At the NYPD and Housing Authority, which both received an “F” rating on the report card, nearly a third of Freedom of Information requests went altogether unanswered. Across all agencies, 1-in-10 requests to the fell through the cracks—a clear breach of Freedom of Information Law. The City doesn’t make it easy to even file a request; nearly half of agencies fail to post any information online about how to file one.
> Scroll down to read the full report or click here to download (.pdf)
Providing access to public records isn’t just the law, it allows critical oversight of City policy. Just two weeks ago, de Blasio sued the City for failing to turn over information on students needlessly sent to the emergency room from schools because of mental health issues—costing parents and taxpayers thousands of dollars. In 2012, de Blasio was forced to file a similar lawsuit when several agencies refused to release records on small business fines. When finally secured through a court settlement, that data revealed a bias in enforcement and fines against outer-borough businesses by City agencies.
To force greater transparency, de Blasio is calling for reforms that require the Mayor to oversee and report on FOIL compliance, assess financial penalties against agencies that repeatedly fail to disclose public information, and mandate proactive online disclosure of the most commonly sought information.
“The City is inviting waste and corruption by blocking information that belongs to the public. That’s the last thing New York City can afford right now. We have to start holding government accountable when it refuses to turn over public records to citizens and taxpayers,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
De Blasio’s report is a snap-shot of more than 10,000 Freedom of Information requests made to the City during a three-month period. The Report Card is the first-ever comprehensive analysis of how agencies’ FOIL responses measure up, evaluating 18 agencies and awarding grades based on timeliness of response, requests left unanswered, and the ease of filing a request.
To dramatically improve the City’s responsiveness to information requests, Public Advocate de Blasio is recommending:
- Hold the Mayor Accountable: Pass legislation requiring the Mayor to include FOIL response statistics in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, in addition to regular reporting on outstanding requests to the Public Advocate and City Council. The Mayor should coordinate a single online hub to submit, process and monitor all FOIL requests.
- Fine Agencies that Repeatedly Break the Law: Assess fines against City agencies found by a court to have a ‘pattern and practice’ of violating FOIL or de facto denials resulting from excessive delays.
- Proactively Disclose Frequently Requested Data: Mandate online publishing of the most commonly-sought information. Proactive disclosure will save time and resources by posting minutes, public schedules and license data online for easy access.
“Judge Louis Brandeis suggested a century ago that sunlight is the best disinfectant. By shining the light on City agencies’ treatment of FOIL requests, the Public Advocate is enabling the public to know which agencies are complying with the spirit of the law, and which are failing. He is also giving incentive to those doing a great job to continue, and to those that are not to catch up and work harder to comply,” said Bob Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
“NYPIRG applauds Public Advocate Bill de Blasio for focusing a spotlight on City government’s lackluster response to public requests for information,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “In the long run – as the Public Advocate writes – the solution is for City agencies to ‘proactively disclose’ by providing information online before it is requested.”
“The public loses out when government agencies suppress the disclosure of relevant information. Democracy demands accountability. Common Cause/NY supports the Public Advocate’s call for pro-active disclosure and urges all City agencies to tighten their procedures so that FOIL requests no longer fall ‘between the cracks,’” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.
"Thank you Public Advocate de Blasio for drawing public attention to the haphazard and murky way that New York City is following the state Freedom of Information Law. New York City is supposed to be in an era of open data and data driven government. Yet, New Yorkers single most important transparency tool --- FOIL --- is being disregarded, gamed and neglected by city agencies far too often. Agency's should be publicly rated as part of their basic performance as part of the Mayor's Management Report," said John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany and co-chair of the NYC Transparency Working Group.
“It is unacceptable that agencies such as the NYPD and NYCHA do such a terrible job in responding to these requests when disclosure is often essential for low income individuals to vindicate their rights. This report by the Public Advocate sheds an important light on this often unseen problem,” said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society.
“Kudos to the Public Advocate for bringing attention to this important issue of government accountability to the public. Time and time again, we have been frustrated by the Department of Education’s failure to disclose information that the people have a right to know. With these recommendations, maybe we’ll see some changes,” said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York.
“It is no surprise that the DOE is getting a D on access to public information, parents know that the Department of Education has an abysmal track record at sharing information and being transparent. Parents need to know what is going on in our children’s schools and what the plans are for providing a quality education. This report shows what we already know which is that Mayor Bloomberg’s DOE is not providing parents and the public the respect and information we need. Public Advocate Bill De Blasio is highlighting the lack of transparency and the need to have it in our schools and city government,” said Zakiyah Ansari, Advocacy Director, Alliance for Quality Education.