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De Blasio Posts FOIL Requests Online in Bid for More Transparency: City

By John Santore | March 14, 2016 10:37am
 Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration rolled out a new digital FOIL system on Thursday.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration rolled out a new digital FOIL system on Thursday.
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Getty/Kena Betancur

CIVIC CENTER - Nearly three years after concluding that most city agencies “failed to obey” public information laws under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Blasio administration rolled out a new digital public records tool.

The city’s new OpenRECORDS website is “designed to streamline the process of submitting, tracking, and responding to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) records requests as we work toward becoming a more transparent and effective government,” according spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas.  

OpenRECORDS asks requesters to pick a record category, such as “education” or “housing,” to select the agency holding the information, and to give their request a brief, descriptive title.

While the name of the person requesting the records and the request itself will not be made public, Grybauskas said, the site will list the titles and the status of the city's response. 

Requestors should receive an acknowledgement of their request within five business days, she said. In addition, the requested records will be put on the website within 20 business days, as long as they “do not contain email correspondence or personally identifiable information.”

The online tool will be tested and refined over the coming months, Grybauskas said, and currently works with just eight city agencies, including the Department of Education, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and the Office of the Mayor.

In April, 2013, then-public advocate de Blasio issued a study of the city’s FOIL responsiveness under the Bloomberg administration.

Among its findings, the report stated that 40 percent of city agencies didn’t provide FOIL information on their websites, while about 10 percent of requests did not receive a response.

De Blasio graded the FOIL responsiveness of each city agency, awarding an “F” to the NYPD and the New York City Housing Authority, and a “D” to the FDNY, the Parks Department and the Department of Correction.

But in November, 2015, an investigation by DNAinfo found that 38 percent of the 741 FOIL requests sent to de Blasio’s office up to that time were delayed for 60 days or more, warranting a grade of “D” according to the mayor's standards as public advocate.

In response, de Blasio told reporters that his administration is “very careful about making sure we fulfill your request fully and accurately but that takes a lot of staff time.”

DNAinfo’s findings followed an August, 2015 report by the Associated Press that the mayor's lawyers were vetting FOIL requests sent to a variety of agencies, a development which “could give de Blasio's office control over virtually all newsworthy requests from journalists, watchdog groups or members of the public.”

The AP based its report on a May 5 email sent to “60 city lawyers who handle public records requests” by City Hall lawyer Bess Chiu. The email said FOIL requests that could “reflect directly on the mayor” should be sent to de Blasio’s lawyers two weeks before a records response was provided.

According to the AP, de Blasio told WNYC host Brian Lehrer that he didn’t know about Chiu's email, and that his administration wished only to implement “a single standard to make sure that agencies won't unnecessarily remove information that could be provided publicly and don't act too slowly to respond to the request.”