The New York State Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the Manhasset school district and the Town of Oyster Bay violated the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) in refusing to provide expenditure records in a timely manner to Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan transparency organization.
In early March, Reclaim New York’s request for records from both government entities set off a seven-month dispute that escalated from private disagreements to public criticisms to a court battle.
Along with the ruling, Judge Robert A. Bruno ordered the defendants to reimburse the legal expenses incurred by Reclaim New York, which amounted to $7,295.26.
On June 7, Reclaim New York brought the lawsuit against the Town of Oyster Bay, the Manhasset Union Free School District and the Elmont Union Free School District. All three entities had refused requests to disclose their expenditures for the fiscal year of 2014 in accordance with the March FOIL request. Eventually each of them complied with the request, though the Manhasset school district reached an agreement with Reclaim New York to send a narrower set of records than originally requested. Only the Elmont school district settled with Reclaim New York over legal fees related to the case.
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.”
The Manhasset school superintendent, Charles Cardillo, expressed disappointment over the ruling. “The district disagrees with the court’s finding that Manhasset’s basis for denying Reclaim New York’s FOIL request was insufficient,” he said. “The district stands by its determination that Reclaim’s initial FOIL request was unreasonable and risked the exposure of private and confidential information.”
A July email from Cardillo said the district could not comply with the “blanket request” for all payments to vendors because it was too ambiguous. The district does not keep separate lists of large payments to contractors and smaller payments to individuals, so the district would have to produce a new set of records to fill the request, which the law does not require, Cardillo said at the time.
Kellogg dismissed Cardillo’s reasons for noncompliance as “excuses and attempts to save face.” He lauded Judge Bruno’s ruling as proof the “law isn’t negotiated by complaints and promises that don’t fall within its parameters.”
For his part, Cardillo said the settlement reached between Reclaim New York and the Manhasset school district “led Reclaim to effectively withdraw its original FOIL request, which sought information on some 15 data fields, and accept a substantially reduced volume and scope of records. We see this as a tacit acknowledgment that its original demand was not reasonable.”
Kellogg responded to this claim by stating, “The decision we received from the judge shows the request was legal and [Manhasset Union Free School District’s] behavior was not in compliance with FOIL.”
As for whether the district will appeal the ruling, Cardillo said, it “is reviewing its legal options.”
The Town of Oyster Bay, which eventually gave all requested records to Reclaim New York, said in a statement that it “was working diligently to comply with the request up to and through the date that [Reclaim New York] sued the town.” As such, the town is “confident that the Appellate Division will find that the town satisfied its obligations under FOIL, and will reverse the erroneous award of attorney’s fees.”
In response to these remarks, Kellogg said the town “clearly did not follow the timelines of FOIL and they need to realize that.” He balked at “the suggestion they would waste more taxpayer dollars on an anti-transparency crusade against the court decision.”
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 Tuesday’s 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 added.