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Posted by Reclaim New York on Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Entities violated State FOIL, refusing to release basic expenditure information
(New York, NY) – In front of the Suffolk County Courthouse in Central Islip today, the non-profit Reclaim New York Center for Government Reform and Accountability (Reclaim New York) announced the filing of Article 78 litigation against three major government entities in Suffolk County, all of which recently refused to comply with New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
The suit alleges that the Town of Islip, Town of Babylon, and Southampton School District all failed to follow state transparency laws when they denied or ignored requests to reveal expenditure information the public is clearly entitled to know.
“It’s time Long Island’s taxpayers saw how their money is being spent,” said Reclaim New York Executive Director Brandon Muir. “Reclaim’s efforts put every public official and taxpayer-funded entity on notice that the days of spending money in the shadows are over. These governments were willing to keep their own citizens from seeing even basic spending information. It’s time they were held accountable in the court of law and the court of public opinion.”
The organization’s New York Transparency Project is an unprecedented, statewide effort to open the checkbooks of all of the state’s 3,400-plus governments to public view. More than 250 FOIL requests were sent to Long Island governments.
“Long Islanders pay some of the highest taxes in the nation,” Muir continued. “Forcing the checkbooks of these entities into public view is a big step toward fighting corruption and making government more proactive in sharing information with citizens.”
More than 75 percent of governments across Long Island that received FOIL requests from Reclaim New York provided the information on time (by the first week of May). However, the three subject to the lawsuit, as well as more than three dozen others, failed to comply with the law.
The Town of Islip
As part of their refusal to open their checkbooks, the Town of Islip demanded an affidavit be signed that would make Reclaim liable for any “claims and damages” that resulted from the release of the records. The request ignored a formal opinion from the Committee on Open Government that determined their overreaching scare tactic was not legal.
The Town of Babylon
Babylon took just 18 words to attempt to justify their hiding of expenditure data, stating that “records have been checked” and the Town “does not have the requested information.” Naturally, the Town must maintain spending records under state law. They then ignored Reclaim’s appeal.
Southampton School District
Southampton schools denied Reclaim New York’s request, acting as if they weren’t required under FOIL to make a copy, or digital version, of records they must keep by law. They later denied the group’s appeal, claiming they would have to redact check numbers to avoid violating privacy. In a confused attempt to back up their appeal denial, they actually cited a Committee on Open Government decision that contradicts their argument. The district even made a last ditch attempt to duck accountability by sending data that did not comply with Reclaim’s request, in response to a July 29 news story.
Southampton Schools sent a clear message to residents that they would rather reach for excuses than simply tell taxpayers how they were spending their money.
All the checkbook information Reclaim New York receives from Long Island will be included in a new, searchable online database, which will be announced in the coming weeks. This public resource will allow any citizen, for the first time, to see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent down to the local level.
“There is no excuse for a lack of transparency with the technology we have today,” said Muir. “It’s time people across the state demanded tired excuses top blocking access to spending information. The New York Transparency Project will help break down barriers that keep the public in the dark while budgets go up, and shady backroom deals lead to scandals.”
Visit ReclaimNewYork.org/Transparency for more information.