Guest: Riverhead Town attorneys fail FOIL

09/30/2013 8:00 AM |
FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

When the new bowling alley in Riverhead proposed erecting an animated billboard, it caused many people to wonder about the lit-up Valero price sign in downtown Jamesport, which similarly violates town code.

“What happened?” they asked. “I thought the town was going to make them take that down!”

Setting out to learn about town actions with regard to the Valero sign, I encountered a familiar roadblock: a FOIL request denial. I realized the town’s routine and cavalier obstruction of taxpayer requests for information is a far more important story than failure to enforce sign codes.

The opening statement of New York’s FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) statute says: “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.” It couldn’t be more plain.

Why, then, does our town government so often fail to deliver requested information?

I haven’t kept track, but probably have had more FOIL requests rejected than filled. I’ve seen massive files withheld because they’re deemed “intra-agency material,” though exempt external correspondence was included. Another typical reason/rejection response: “It’s all being discussed with counsel, and is therefore privileged.”

Baloney.

My Valero request was sent to town code enforcement and the town attorney. Code enforcement rejected it, saying deputy town attorney Bill Duffy directed them to do so because the information, “if disclosed, would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”

That’s a particularly lame excuse in this case. I contacted Mr. Duffy, but he didn’t return my calls. Because this rejection was so blatantly wrong, I thought about appealing it. I then remembered Mr. Duffy is also the town’s designated FOIL appeals officer; that battle was already lost.

Though an issue of minor consequence, this matter was so simple and straightforward that it made a great example; I contacted the Committee on Open Government (COOG), the state agency that oversees FOIL implementation. In response, the COOG assistant director made many useful observations.

Specifically on the denial of Valero information, she said: “If the agency has issued a notice of violation or a summons for violation of a zoning code, such notice would be required to be made public upon request for various reasons — one, it is likely that it is part of the public record at the courthouse; two, it would represent a final agency determination, which is required to be made public pursuant to section 87(2)(g); three, it would be difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion, for an agency to show that a record such as this if disclosed, would interfere with an investigation or judicial proceeding.”

(About the common “discussed with counsel” excuse, COOG said: “Merely because records are discussed with an attorney does not make them attorney-client privileged.”)

These are strong words, and it appears that Mr. Duffy is unequivocally wrong. If he returned my phone calls, I’d tell him so.

The point is not that secrets are being kept about the Valero sign (though they are); the point is that every day, residents are routinely and illegally blocked in their efforts to get information about the workings of this town.

It’s not always by denial. A taxpayer sought landfill records and was prepared to pay the 25¢ per page copying fee. The FOIL officer said the taxpayer must first pay $125 to have the 600-page file redacted … after which he could look at the pages, decide which he needed, and then pay copying costs. Outrageous. (Did the town charge this “redacting fee” multiple times for the same file?)

To be clear, plenty of folks working at Town Hall understand their job is to serve the public, and seem to enjoy doing so. Prompt and courteous assistance on some FOIL requests is not uncommon. The town clerk’s office, for example, is unfailingly helpful and incredibly efficient.

Yet, in some areas information is given grudgingly, and every request is treated as a nuisance. The town attorney’s office seems consistently prone to naysaying, foot-dragging, and abusive decisions. This must change.

Last year, Supervisor Walter and three council members joined town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz at a COOG forum on FOIL implementation. Was that just for show?

Back to Valero. The sign went up in 2008. In January 2009, Riverhead filed suit in state Supreme Court against the owner. Since that filing, there have been four motions, two conferences, 91 adjournments, and 0 decisions, with no activity since August 2010. (This info is from the court system website.)

Taxpayers deserve to know: 1) what actions code enforcement officers took before the lawsuit was filed; 2) whether the town sought injunctive relief to — at the very least — turn the sign off; 3) whether fines are being imposed and collected for this small-but-flagrant violation; 4) why there’s been literally no progress on this case in over three years.

The town’s position is that we’re not entitled to know any of these things, even though the state FOIL committee says that’s wrong.

Town attorneys are hired by, and take direction from, the Town Board. Voters who find this behavior troubling should remember that the incumbent supervisor and council members are extremely unlikely to fix this pervasive problem. We need representatives who will treat residents with greater respect, and who will obey the law.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is active in savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.