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Report: Riverhead Town failed the open government test

05/23/2016 7:30 AM |

A nonprofit government watchdog group says Riverhead Town hasn’t complied with state freedom of information laws and hasn’t fulfilled its request for a list of vendors the town used last year.

But Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter is going a step further. After he was notified of the group’s claims, Mr. Walter said the request has been denied, citing a town policy that was created “out of respect for vendors and unscrupulous folks attempting to solicit them.”

A spokesperson for the group later called the policy a “weak excuse.”

The watchdog group, Reclaim New York, used the state’s Freedom of Information Law to seek government records from towns, villages and school districts across Long Island and the Hudson Valley area.

According to spokesperson Doug Kellogg, many government entities — including Nassau County and Islip, Babylon and Riverhead towns — aren’t fulfilling their legal duties to disclose public information.

“Some of them are obstinate and some are woefully underprepared,” Mr. Kellogg said.

The group intends to make the information publicly available in a database, but also uses the requests as a test to see if municipalities are fulfilling a “basic level of transparency,” Mr. Kellogg said.

“We want to assess how effective FOIL is, how well it’s working and if our governments are complying,” he said.

The initial request to Riverhead Town was sent March 7, according to a copy of the document provided to the News-Review. Two days later, Mr. Kellogg said, the town sent an initial response requesting additional time to complete the requests, as per the law.

Since then, he said, the town has ignored the nonprofit’s follow-up messages.

When told of the request, Mr. Walter initially said the group should have contacted him personally to get the release of information approved. But later, after conferring with the town’s legal counsel, he said the request would be denied. Deputy Town Attorney Dan McCormick said the town was suspicious of the nonprofit group and would not fulfill the FOIL request until the town could confirm they were not scammers.

““The problem is they’re testing the system with a request for vendor data, which has been used in FOIL scams,” Mr. McCormick said. “They picked an area that has been ripe for fraud.” Mr. McCormick was unsure whether the town had notified Reclaim New York of the reason their request had been denied.

Mr. Walter said an earlier FOIL request from a different source had been inappropriately used to falsely bill a vendor in the town’s name.

When informed that other towns had complied with Reclaim New York’s request, Mr. Walter replied by saying Riverhead has “higher standards than other towns.”

“It has to do with what they are doing with the FOIL, not what they are asking,” Mr. Walter said. “Morals apply before FOIL.”

Mr. Kellogg said that policy doesn’t hold water.

“Transparency is a moral,” the spokesperson said. “Being up front with your citizens about how you’re spending their money is a moral … He’s really out to lunch on this.”

Mr. Kellogg said Reclaim New York has signed non-solicitation agreements with other towns legally promising not to use the information to contact the vendors, which Riverhead’s policy hopes to prevent.

He said the town’s initial response was encouraging, since other municipalities simply ignored them, but said the town was still obligated to complete the FOIL request.

“People deserve this information,” Mr. Kellogg said.

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