Our Views: Officials ignore information law

When the Press Club of Long Island recently asked the Village of Roslyn Harbor for a copy of its payroll as part of an audit of how municipalities and agencies complied with state Freedom of Information law, the then village clerk-treasurer responded that “Nothing good will come of this.”

Actually, no.

The state Freedom of Information law gives the public and the press working on behalf of the public access to records on how taxpayer money is spent and governments perform.

And its value has been proved repeatedly in rooting out incompetent governance and corruption.

That’s one of the prime reasons for having a free press — to deter government incompetence and thievery.

The need for this deterrence is all too familiar to Nassau County voters.

But apparently, many government officials either never read the Freedom of Information Law or the Constitution or don’t put much stock in it.

The Press Club of Long Island audit, which was conducted over 16 months and graded the responsiveness of 195 municipalities on a 0 to 100 scale, found that villages on the North Shore averaged a 66.2 or D rating, lower than the C average for all governments and agencies.

So much for the idea that the more local the government the better it serves the public.

Seven North Shore villages — Roslyn Harbor, Manorhaven, Baxter Estates, Sands Point, Kings Point, Lake Success, New Hyde Park and Floral Park — received grades of F.

The Village of Sands Point earned its dubious distinction in part by being the only government to violate the law that prevents municipalities and agencies from charging excessive fees. The village charged the Press Club $150 for a copy of its payroll, according to the audit.

The village attorney, Michael Sahn, defended the village clerk, Liz Gaynor, saying she was “very responsive.”

We would love to know what Mr. Sahn believes is unresponsive.

The Press Club gave Baxter Estates, which sent all of the information requested in 106 days, a 55, and Manorhaven,which sent it in 99 days, a 35.

The Village of Kings Point received a 5 or F, the lowest score on the North Shore. The village took 151 days to send all the information.

This is not just an issue between local governments and the media.

Newspaper, broadcast and web reporters seek information from local government to inform the public.

When the government denies or delays requests for information, it prevents the public from getting the information it needs to make informed decisions.

Some governments and agencies denied or delayed requests because they were “burdensome or the agency lacks sufficient staffing” or for asking why a document was requested.

Sorry but providing the press and the public with public documents is one of the requirements for government.

Those officials who don’t want to comply should find work elsewhere.

As proof that local government is capable of complying with Freedom of Information requests is the Village of Flower Hill, which received a 95 for an A grade, sending all requested documents within two days.

Flower Hill was joined by Roslyn Estates and Thomaston as the most responsive governments, also receiving A grades of 95.

But they were exceptions and village governments were not alone in faring poorly.

Nassau County government received a 68, which is good for a D+ rating, and the average grade for county agencies was a D+.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano’s office received a 22 or F.

Given that Mangano is under indictment for political corruption, this might be considered exceeding expectations.

The Press Club was told to contact the county attorney’s office once it followed up when Mangano’s media representatives did not confirm the request, the report says.

After receiving a portion of the documents, the Press Club followed up with the attorney’s office five more times but received no response.

By contrast, Nassau County Community College scored 100 — the highest grade for any agency or government in Nassau County.

The Town of North Hempstead received a C or 75 and took 153 days to provide all of the requested documents.

Apparently, many public officials don’t have a very high regard for the public they serve.

Or, as the Roslyn Harbor clerk-treasurer indicated, they have something to hide.

We pledge to aggressively pursue government information important to voters. We hope voters do the same.

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