Sponsors of a bill before the City Council this afternoon seek to establish an online portal though which citizens would file requests for city government records under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, and track the requests already submitted. Information requested through the website would not be emailed to the inquirer, but published on the portal for anyone to read.
The proposed legislation, co-sponsored by Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer and council members Ben Kallos and James Vacca, was inspired in part by an April 2013 report by then-public advocate Bill de Blasio, “Breaking Through Bureaucracy,” which found that of the 10,000 FOIL requests to city agencies analyzed, one in 10 were either ignored or lost. Forty percent of agencies lacked information on their websites about where to direct FOIL requests, and 17 percent took more than 60 days to respond to requests with either promises or denials of access to records. As the system stands now, New Yorkers pursuing city government records have no central resource listing contact information for the designated public access officer at each agency, the correct submission format for their requests, or any guidance on tracking the progress FOIL requests.
“This will empower the Fourth Estate, the press, to know more of what’s going on in government and for everyone to be able to see it,” said Kallos, who has used FOIL to post New York state legislators’ voting records online and looks to online open-FOIL systems in Oakland and Chicago as models for his project.
But the bill raises questions about the role of the press in interpreting city documents and data, and could throw a monkeywrench into the established ways the New York press goes about chasing exclusive investigations.
The bill, called OpenFOIL, aims to hold recalcitrant agencies accountable, said John Kaehny, the executive director of Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit that helped draft it.
“In the longer run, we do think that having agencies turn in really bad performance will shame them into better performance, because… for sure we would expect the press to hound agencies that are being terrible,”he said.