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Hearing Reporters Vent for 12 Years Helped FOIL Officer to Become Therapist

By James Fanelli | August 22, 2016 4:10pm
 Don Appel went from being a FOIL officer to a therapist
Don Appel went from being a FOIL officer to a therapist
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DNAinfo New York/James Fanelli

NEW YORK CITY — This past spring Don Appel decided it was time to hand in his chiseled-point Sharpie marker and call it quits as a city civil servant.

For the past 12 years, Appel had served as the FOIL officer for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, shepherding documents, memos and emails from his agency to the public all in the name of transparency. That’s on top of another 25 years he spent in different roles at HPD and other city departments.

During his time as a FOIL officer, Appel estimates, he was responsible for processing roughly 18,000 requests for records from the public under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

The reams of records could be dense, but Appel had to scrutinize each and every one to ensure that personal information was redacted (that’s where the Sharpie comes in) and that HPD was handing over what was required of it under the law.

“I gave them all proper consideration,” Appel said of the FOIL requests. “I approached it with honesty toward the task.”

In May, Appel, 63, retired from his job at HPD, where his office door had a quote from Founding Father Patrick Henry that says, “The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

But Appel isn’t giving up work — rather he’s starting his fourth career (his first was as a radio reporter) as a therapist.

He got his social worker license after receiving his master’s degree in the field from NYU. He took his classes and performed his internships in the early morning and at night and on the weekend while working full time at HPD.

Being a FOIL officer also proved to be good training for becoming a therapist.

The Freedom of Information Law allows members of the public to access government records so they can see how its public officials make decisions and policy choices. It’s an important tool for journalists, watchdogs, lawyers and anyone else who wants to be informed about their elected leaders.

The job of a FOIL officer involves knowing the law. But it also requires a gift for conflict resolution — as one needs to handle the demands of the person submitting the request and the occasional pushback from agency employees who don’t necessarily want their work to be given out to the public. 

“I was caught between everyone on the outside and everyone on the inside who doesn’t want stuff out,” Appel said.

Bob Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, which provides advice to the public and to the government about FOIL law, praised Appel for being one of the few people in government who would call him for clarity on a legal point before making a determination on a request.

"He has called many times over the years. I’ve always appreciated that when people in government reached out for guidance," Freeman said.

Appel said that his job also required patience and a good bedside manner. He frequently fielded calls from people who submitted FOIL requests  — including many a reporter — who anxiously demanded updates on the status of their requests.

“A good therapist is really a listener,” Appel said.

The soft-spoken New York native, who has a grown son and lives with his wife in the city, said he was drawn to therapy because he likes helping people.

Since he left HPD, he has spent his time growing his practice, working for a clinical psychologist and meeting with patients in Manhattan and White Plains. But he hasn't regretted the career switch at all.

“It’s a joyous and liberating experience,” Appel said.