EDITORIAL: Train kids to use FOIL

HAVE YOU READ your FBI files? I read mine more than 30 years ago and the parts that were not redacted (blacked out) weren’t all that interesting and suggested the bureau wasn’t very interested in me. I learned more when I interviewed one of the special agents who spied on me, and while I’ve written about these incidents elsewhere, I still marvel at how things have changed when it comes to citizens having greater access to government records.

Fifty years ago the FBI’s Cointelpro operation was in full swing. The name is a bureaucratic shortening of Counterintelligence Program, which directed agents to spy on all sorts of people who might qualify in the paranoid view of J. Edgar Hoover as “subversive.” It included plenty of people whose actions were lawful and clearly protected by the Constitution. The excesses of Cointelpro, exposed in part by the theft of some paper records from a suburban Philadelphia FBI office in 1971, led to new laws, including the Federal Freedom of Information Act and similar state statutes.

In New York we have the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and the accompanying Open Meetings Law, which make it more difficult for government to function in secret and easier for citizens to review what government agencies are doing in the name of the people.

Two recent local cases, which have nothing to do with spying, led county residents to “FOIL” government documents, with limited or no success at all. But both cases serve as a reminder of why we continue to need these laws.

Columbia County wants to extend the runway at the county airport to comply with federal safety regulations. This would require clearing land around the runway and limiting the height of trees along the approaches used by planes as they take off and land. The county has offered to purchase part of a golf course at the north end of the runway, and it was not until neighbors of the golf course used the Freedom of Information Law to request documents and email that they learned the county also wants to purchase or place restrictive easements on large swaths of their property too.

When Ghent residents Michael Schrom and Patti Matheney Schrom asked a judge to force the county to release additional information, state Supreme Court Judge Richard Mott ruled against them. But the information they had already obtained revealed not only the county’s shabby treatment of them and 11 other unsuspecting property owners, the documents made clear as well that the costs of the project may have been radically underestimated, which could saddle taxpayers with huge new debts.

Without the leverage of FOIL, it’s hard to imagine how these facts would ever have come to light until it was too late to do anything but pay for government’s mistakes.

Not every FOIL request has merit, and the law sets reasonable limits on what’s available. Sometimes people go on fishing expeditions; sometimes they ask for things that don’t exist. The law doesn’t require government to create documents that weren’t there to begin with.

But in a different case in Chatham last year, a citizen asked for records the village didn’t have and then filed suit against the village, asking a judge to support his vague and confused requests for documents. The judge dismissed the request with a stinging rebuke of the citizen for wasting the court’s time. The judge also invoked a relatively new aspect of FOIL that gives the village the right to seek to recover its legal fees.

The Chatham case could have had a better ending if the citizen had followed the rules. The Village Board is designated as the body that decides appeals of FOIL requests. Had the citizen brought his request to the board, he might have received what he wanted. If he hadn’t received it, he then would have had a legitimate reason to go to court.

With so much attention now focused on Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, it’s easy to overlook the importance of FOI laws, which give all citizens a non-partisan, legal tool essential for maintaining our system of democratic self government. That would be a mistake.

Our public schools try to prepare young people to become good citizens. One aspect of that in these times is instructing all students in the effective use of FOIL statutes. It should be a requirement for graduation. How else will young people know there may be ways other than hacking and theft to discover when government keeps secrets the public needs to know?

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