Our Views: Officials get a civics lesson

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The state Supreme Court performed a real public service in recently ruling that the Manhasset School District as well as the Town of Oyster Bay violated the Freedom of Information Law in refusing to provide expenditure records in a timely manner. And ordering that the two reimburse Reclaim New York, the organization that filed the lawsuits, legal fees, which amounted to a little over $7,000 dollars.
While we do not like to see school district money spent on non-education purposes, we hope that the court requiring the school district to reimburse Reclaim New York served as a lesson — that all government agencies have a responsibility to turn over public records and do so in a timely fashion.
Governments funded by taxpayer money have too often acted as if they were private companies with no responsibility to turn over public records in a timely fashion — if at all.
In some cases, these governments have essentially dared organizations seeking those records to sue them — the only recourse offered under state law.
The organizations seeking the records are usually media companies including weekly newspapers that don’t have the resources to sue government entities such as school districts, which can have budgets of tens of million if not hundreds of millions.
But make no mistake this is not just about the press not getting records in a timely way if at all. It is also about you.
There is a reason the framers of the Constitution made Freedom of Speech the First Amendment.
A free press represents the public in gathering and disseminating information. When the press is denied information from a government, so is the public.
That is a lesson taught in grade school.
But too many public officials have either forgotten the lesson or think they are above it — despite oaths of office that require them to obey both the Constitution of the U.S. and New York.
Doug Kellogg, communications director for Reclaim New York, said he and his organization were “thrilled to hear this decision” because it “sides with FOIL and will serve as a precedent statewide for awarding attorneys fees in such cases, which will protect New Yorkers from having to pay thousands of dollars to enforce basic rights of transparency.”
Reclaim New York brought had filed lawsuits against Oyster Bay, the Manhasset School District and the Elmont School District for refusing requests to disclose their expenditures for the 2014 fiscal year.
Eventually, each of them complied with the request. In the case of the Manhasset school district, it  reached an agreement with Reclaim New York to send a narrowed set of records than originally requested.
A July email from Manhasset school Superintendent Charles Cardillo said the district could not comply with a “blanket request” for all payments to vendors because it was too ambiguous. Cardillo also expressed disappointment with the court ruling, saying the initial FOIL request was unreasonable.
Reclaim New York’s initial Freedom of Information Law requests came as part of a transparency project in which the organization sought expenditure records from every county, city, town, village and school district on Long Island.
A total of 253 entities received Freedom of Information Law requests, and 196 complied with the requests on time.
That left 57 government institutions that failed to comply in a timely manner, with 38 delivering outright denials.
In August, Reclaim New York brought a second lawsuit against the Town of Babylon, the Town of Islip, and the Southampton School District in response to their failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Law requests.
The Southampton School District settled out of court, but the other two government entities have yet to make their records public. The decision in that case is still pending, though Kellogg said the Town of Babylon has been “somewhat cooperative” in ongoing settlement discussions.
To date, 34 other Long Island government entities have not completed requests.
Kellogg said the most recent court ruling will make those entities more likely to comply.
“Every step forward provides more incentive for governments who have not completed requests to complete them,” he said.
We would hope that they and everyone else in government learns their lesson.

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