New York legislators and transparency advocates call for stronger Freedom of Information Laws

Courtesy of the offfice of Sen. John Liu

New York State Senators John Liu and Brad Hoylman-Sigal, along with State Assembly Member Steven Raga, joined forces with a broad coalition of journalists, civic organizations, and transparency advocates in Albany on Tuesday to call for crucial enhancements to New York’s Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL).

Liu, represents Northeast Queens while Hoylman-Sigal, covers much of the west side of Manhattan. Raga represents several neighborhoods in Queens which include Woodside, Elmhurst, Maspeth, Jackson Heights, Astoria, and Middle Village.

The legislators, in collaboration with the New York Coalition for Open Government and several other groups, are pushing for legislative amendments designed to streamline the FOIL process, thereby facilitating easier access to public records by journalists and the general public. Currently, all 50 states possess their own versions of freedom of information laws, which vary significantly across the nation.

Assembly Member Raga’s proposal, aims to curb the excessive delays often encountered in FOIL request responses by mandating that agencies acknowledge these requests promptly and provide a realistic timeline for approval or denial. “FOIL requests are crucial for ensuring that New Yorkers can access public information,” Raga explained. “However, the current system’s delays hinder our right to information. The FOIL Timeline Act will set limits on these delays, promoting a government that is truly transparent, open, and responsive.”

Senator Liu’s bill, seeks to alleviate the burden on attorneys handling FOIL litigation by removing the requirement that a party must “substantially prevail” before being eligible for attorney fees. This change is aimed at expediting legal proceedings and making it easier for individuals to access information. “FOIL responses can be notoriously hard to obtain, a fact well-known to both journalists and attorneys,” said Liu. “By reforming how attorney fees are awarded, we can make the process more efficient and ensure the public’s access to information.”

This move was prompted by the celebration of Sunshine Week, an annual, non-partisan event that brings together stakeholders from various sectors to underscore the importance of open government and the public’s right to access information. The initiative, celebrated in mid-March, aligns with the birthday of James Madison, a fervent advocate for transparency, and National Freedom of Information Day on March 16th.

The rally also saw participation from organizations like Reinvent Albany, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, New York Public Interest Research Group, the League of Women Voters of NYS, the Legal Aid Society, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, all united in their support for a more transparent and accountable government.