A bill that would require City agencies to publish all Freedom of Information Law correspondence and the records and data it produces will be introduced to the City Council on Wednesday. "Justice Brandeis had it right: Sunshine is the best disinfectant," the bill's main sponsor Manhattan Councilmember Ben Kallos said.
A public, searchable, internet-based "FOIL portal" that has been adopted in cities like Chicago and Oakland is what Public Advocate Bill de Blasio recommended following his report released last year [PDF] that graded the responsiveness of various City agencies to FOIL requests.
Speaking to the Gotham Gazette, a mayoral spokesman was more circumspect about what Mayor de Blasio thinks of the legislation: "The mayor's office applauds the broad objective and intent of the bill, [and are] looking forward to reviewing the legislation more closely."
While the Gotham Gazette piece focuses on what might happen if FOIL requests from competitive New York news outlets instantly become public, the majority of requests come from private citizens.
"Many people make FOIL requests because the records have an impact on their lives," says Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government. Freeman tells us such an open database can present problems.
"Generally speaking, the thrust of this proposal is very positive, but there are any number of situations where people will request records that have really no significant, intrinsic value to the public—people will ask about an issue with respect to receiving public assistance, or they'll write to the Department of Education about issues concerning their children. There are certainly privacy considerations here."
Additionally, the idea that transparency alone automatically translates into action on the part of obstinate City agencies is perhaps misguided. De Blasio recognized this a year ago when in addition to recommending the FOIL database, he called for agencies to be fined for non-compliance.
Just two weeks ago we published an article detailing the mayor's dubious rejection of our FOIL request for records of communication between his office and his mayoral supporter, Bishop Orlando Findlayter. That article has not prompted any response from the Mayor's Office; a database is unlikely to change that suspect determination.
Proponents of the bill say that these privacy issues can be ironed out in committee, where the bill is likely to face some changes.
"Transparency around FOIL requests is integral for government accountability," Councilmember Kallos says. "We should all see what information is requested and what is made public.”