“The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.
As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and, therefore, harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible.
The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature, therefore, declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article.”
All government records are presumed to be available to the public. You have the right to inspect or obtain copies of reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, recordings, videos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes.
Every government entity is supposed to have a designated Records Access Officer responsible for processing Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Typically, the Village Clerk, Town Clerk, or City Clerk is the Records Access Officer. In many cities and counties, you have to file your request with a department head.
You can file a FOIL request by sending an email to your local clerk or to a specific department head. Be as specific and brief as possible regarding what records you are requesting. Your request should be a short, focused paragraph/page and not multiple pages long. Some local governments like to encourage you to use their FOIL request form, which may be helpful, but you are not required to use their form.
If you would like a template to assist you with drafting your request, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Within five business days, your request should be acknowledged in writing by whomever you sent it to.The government has 20 business days from acknowledgment to provide information which can be extended for reasonable circumstances with a deadline date provided.
If, after 30 calendar days, your request has been ignored or if you have not received the documents requested, you can file an administrative appeal. Every local government has a designated FOIL Appeal Officer, which your local clerk should be able to provide you with contact information for.
In many municipalities, the Appeal Officer is the town attorney, city attorney, county attorney, and sometimes the town supervisor. To appeal, you can simply forward an email to the Appeal officer stating that 30 days have elapsed, and your FOIL request has been ignored, your request denied in full or part, or that the deadline for your request keeps getting pushed back or is unreasonably too far away. The Appeal Officer has ten business days to respond to your appeal. Sometimes filing an appeal helps move your FOIL request forward.
If you would like an appeal template, send an email to email@example.com.
If your appeal is unsuccessful or your request has simply been ignored, you can hire an attorney to file what is called an Article 78 lawsuit. You only have 120 days from the date of your appeal denial or the date of your FOIL request if your request has been ignored to file an Article 78 lawsuit. This is a very short time period, so you really have to be watching the clock.
While government records are presumed to be open and available to the public, there are items that are exempt from the law and which do not have to be disclosed. Some of the more common reasons your FOIL request may be denied are as follows:
Inter-agency materials are a big loophole, which oftentimes is the reason for denying requests for internal emails.
For copying and providing hard copy documents to you, a fee of 25 cents per page can be charged to you. If you want to avoid paying the fee, you can request just to view the records. You can also request to receive your records electronically, for which a fee is typically not charged. If you request a large amount of information, your records may have to be placed on a computer disk or thumb drive, and you can be charged the cost of the disk or thumb drive.
There is what is called the 2-hour rule. If your request takes more than 2 hours of copying, a local government, instead of charging you 25 cents per page, can charge you the hourly rate of the lowest level employee for the work involved with your FOIL request.
They cannot charge you for their search or reviewing time, only the copying time. If they utilize an outside contractor to do this, the work can be billed the cost of the outside contractor.
To avoid any fee disputes, it is a good idea to state a fee limit in your FOIL request, such as “if the fees involved in completing your request are estimated to be more than $20, please advise before completing the request”.