FOIL amendment should make more documents available at public meetings

Beginning this week, New Yorkers will have greater access to information at public meetings.

A new amendment to the state’s Open Meetings Law, scheduled to take effect Feb. 2, requires municipalities, school districts and other governmental bodies to make all documents to be discussed at public meetings available at or before the meetings, either in person or online.

Greenport Village clerk Sylvia Pirillo brought a foot-and-a-half high stack of freedom of information requests (known as FOILs), all from the past year, to Greenport’s Jan. 16 work session, in part to point out that her office is kept very busy with requests for information.

Trustee Mary Bess Phillips said she hopes documents can be made available through the new village website, a change that would cut down significantly on official paperwork.

“There’s an ongoing myth that we’re keeping information from people,” she said. “There’s an inordinate number of requests from a couple of people. There’s a great deal of time in the clerk’s office being spent making sure these things are being handled properly.”

Ms. Phillips said she plans to work with the village’s web developer to incorporate the new freedom of information requirements into the website’s monthly maintenance.

“That way, we’ll get the information out to the public, give them an opportunity to read it ahead of time, and that will [reduce] the manpower required in getting ready for FOIL requests,” she said.

Southold Town has been a regional leader in providing rapid access to documents, said Town Clerk Betty Neville, who has been working to provide electronic access to documents through Laserfiche since 2001.

Those documents are available through a Laserfiche weblink on the home page of the town’s website. Agendas for all town meetings are also available ahead of time, along with videos of Town Board meetings.

“We try to respond in a very timely manner to anyone who tries to file a freedom of information request,” she said. “Whenever I can, I clip documents electronically and send them by email, rather than filling out forms and sending a letter. When you do that, you expend $50 worth of labor trying to earn 75 cents in photocopies.”

School districts are also adapting to the changes.

“We currently, and have been doing so for quite some time, post the agenda on the web page,” said Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda. “We have provided hard copies of the agenda and any policy review amendment and development at the meeting. We will now include those on the web page.”

Mr. Comanda said school district clerk Diana Duell will attend a meeting in March on updating the school’s compliance with the changes to the open meetings law.

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