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Toughening up the rules on sunshine

Monday, March 24, 2014 - Updated: 6:58 AM

The state's Freedom of Information Law is one of the most important tools at the public's disposal to insist on a responsive, open government.

The law gives the public the right to gain access to many government records, and few things are more vital for an engaged, democratic society.

Yet New York's so-called "FOIL" statute could be a lot stronger, and last week's observance of "Sunshine Week" proved no better time to gain momentum to that end.

For starters, penalties for flagrantly violating it should be greatly stiffened, such as forcing public officials to step down from office if it is shown they did not adhere to the statute and wrongfully denied requests for information.

For another, governments of all stripes must be constantly reminded that the statute puts the burden on them to explain why a document should be off limits from public scrutiny; the burden is not supposed to be on the public to make the case why a document should be made available to the public.

Particularly in the digital age, governments also have the ability to make public documents available in a much more timely manner and shouldn't be waiting for someone to file a FOIL to do so.

As ridiculous as it seems, government agencies that lose FOIL battles in court still have up to nine months to make an appeal. That duration is far too long and must be tightened, and there is a good way for the Legislature to do that this session.

Legislation sponsored by state Assembly-man David Buchwald, D-Westchester, and state Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye, would justly require that such appeals be filed within 30 days of an agency being notified of such a court ruling. They note that otherwise in some cases the long delay "may make moot the individuals FOIL request and functionally deny them the timely access to documents needed." They also point out that a speedier resolution reduces court costs.

There are plenty of ways for the state to bolster the Freedom of Information Law and good reasons to do it. State lawmakers should not let this session end without taking definitive action.

-- The Poughkeepsie Journal

     

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