Bring on the sunshine

It isnít always easy to navigate through government workings and determine on your own what information the public is entitled to and what information is private, and when it comes to the Freedom of Information Law, Iíve found that no one seems to have all the answers.

This week is Sunshine Week, a celebration of open government. In the past, The Evening Sun has celebrated Sunshine Week by exploring the sunshine laws, which dictate how to hold open meetings, what information can be discussed in an executive session and what documents need to be available to the public. We have also spent the week looking at local governments and trying to determine how open they are.

This year, we decided to do something a little different. Instead of interviewing individuals and writing about the sunshine laws, we decided to get involved and see the process in action. The results were interesting and diverse, and although most of the local agencies contacted complied with the request for information, the things we discovered along the way, were more interesting than the information compiled at the end.

The Freedom of Information Law was established to give the public a way to access government documents and obtain a level of transparency with their elected officials. In theory, the law keeps government honest and keeps the public informed, but unless there are local residents who make the effort to stay informed, the system doesnít really carry a lot of weight.

Iíve worked at The Evening Sun for nearly three years, and while I would like to say submitting FOIL requests is a regular practice, in reality, it is a tool that Iíve only been forced to use a couple times a year. This yearís Sunshine Week project required me to submit more foil requests than ever before, and by exercising my skills, I learned a lot about the process. Several weeks ago, Evening Sun staffers sent FOIL requests to every municipality and school district in Chenango County, asking for the names, positions and salaries of all employees. The results of those FOIL requests will be published later in the week, but the differences encountered from one municipality to the next were astounding.

While calling around to determine who to send the requests to, I was amazed at some of the answers I heard. On one call I was told they had no idea who the FOIL officer was, as they had never received a request before. On another call, I was told the information would be provided, but it would take slightly longer than the five day deadline, stated in the law, because none of the information was computerized. Some other areas, failed to respond to the request for information at all.

Overall, I would give Chenango County municipalities and school districts a passing grade. Those I dealt with were mostly quick and forthcoming with information. I can only hope that our requests for public information encourage others to go out and seek the information they need to become informed of the workings of our government system.

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