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NY Gov. Cuomo Urged To Sign Bill To Strengthen FOIL

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Twenty state and national groups supporting a bill that would strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Law are urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign the measure into law as soon as he receives it from the state legislature.

The bill, approved by the Senate and the Assembly in June, says if a court finds that a state agency unreasonably dragged its feet answering a Freedom of Information request, a judge could require the agency to pay the attorney’s fees for the person or group who made the FOIL request.

Alex Camarda, with the reform group Reinvent Albany, says the provision, which already exists in several states including Florida and Illinois, is key to making the FOIL process functional. He says those requesting the information often can’t afford a potentially lengthy court battle.

“All too often state agencies don’t follow the spirit and even the letter of the Freedom of Information Act,” Camarda said. "We think this bill will go a long way in ensuring greater transparency and accountability and make sure that records - which are the public's information - are made available quickly and make government processes more transparent to the public." 

Cuomo has until the end of the year to sign or veto the bill.  It has not yet been sent to him. Backers include the League of Women Voters, NYU’s Brennan Center, the New York Press Club - which represents newspapers - and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which sent a letter signed by the New York Times and NPR, among others.

Camarda, with Reinvent Albany, says Cuomo, by signing the bill, would have a chance to fulfill his campaign promise to run a transparent administration.

“The governor has made transparency a hallmark of his administration, you may recall he said that his administration would be the most transparent in New York history,” Camarda said. “This bill will be a critical test of whether he’s committed to transparency." 

The governor vetoed a similar bill two years ago saying that it was an “unworkable, inequitable and a piecemeal approach to FOIL reform”, and that the standard for awarding attorney’s fees should be applied both to the state agency and to the person bringing the lawsuit. The measure was backed by the governor’s own Committee on Open Government. Camarda says those changes have been made in the new bill.

“The standard for fees was addressed,” he said. “We think he should sign this legislation.”

Cuomo in 2015 instead issued an executive order that required state agencies to shorten the time frame for responding to FOIL requests. In 2016, the Democrat signed a bill that limited the time state agencies can spend in court appealing a FOIL request decision that they disagree with. The governor has unsuccessfully tried to get the legislature to agree to expand the FOIL law to the Senate and Assembly. Currently they are exempt from the law.

A spokesman for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, says in a statement “the legislation – one of more than 500 that passed both houses in the final weeks of the session -- remains under review by Counsel’s Office." 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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