[by Susan Ashline]
At the Monroe County Executive’s office, Freedom of Information requests are more like public records held captive.
I learned the Communications Department is in major upheaval, and my request for public records may not be the only one going ignored.
This is ironic, considering the new County Executive, Cheryl Dinolfo, is pushing to create an Office of Public Integrity to make Monroe County “the most ethical and transparent government in the nation.”
Yet, access to public records is clearly not a priority for Dinolfo. A source tells me the Communications Department has undergone a “complete overhaul” and may not know the status of any Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. There, it is more appropriately SOIL (Suppression of Information).
It was more than three months ago I filed a FOIL request. Though I got confirmation it was received, it’s been months of chasing down the status, all of which has led to dead ends. The agency has gone well beyond the deadline for responding. Simply ignoring the FOIL constitutes a denial. However, my initial request asked for a denial in writing so I could make an effective appeal. Even a denial in writing has been denied me.
Coincidentally, my FOIL involves Judge Vincent Dinolfo, husband of the new County Executive. Granted, Cheryl Dinolfo wasn’t in office when I filed my FOIL request, but she was campaigning (same party affiliation as the outgoing County Executive, and the party’s pick). And now, she’s there. And all of my phone calls and messages have gone ignored, and all of my emails unanswered. It certainly crossed my mind this was personal.
But I even sent a tweet, and that went unanswered, too. In fact, though Dinolfo’s Twitter page has been updated to her title of County Executive, the last tweet from her account was in the middle of December. I can understand social media taking a back seat to other duties, but access to public records should be a priority.
What happens now? Based on total lack of response, I have filed an appeal. Unfortunately, my appeal is required to go to William Napier, Director of Communications, the same individual charged with handling FOIL requests.The same staffer who ignored my original request, emails, and phone messages.
Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director of the State Department’s Committee on Open Government, has issued a verbal opinion stating my appeal should be granted, as the records I request fall under my right of access to government records.
It is a shame I have to fight so hard to get public records to which I am entitled.
When an appeal is filed, the agency is required to respond within 10 business days. If other FOIL requests have gone ignored, this could mean resources at the already strapped Communications Department may need to be almost exclusively devoted to filling FOIL appeals. If the appeals are not answered in the required time frame, the Monroe County Executive’s office will stand in violation of the law. The citizen’s remedy for that is to file an Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. A judge may award the citizen attorney fees. And we all know who ends up paying when the county gets taken to court.
Let me be the first to drop a complaint in that box at the Office of Public Integrity ribbon cutting.