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Cuomo urged to sign bill to strengthen FOIL

Twenty state and national groups supporting a bill that would strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Law are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the measure into law as soon as he receives it from the state Legislature.

The bill, approved by the Senate and the Assembly in June, said if a court finds that a state agency unreasonably dragged its feet answering a Freedom of Information request, a judge could require the agency to pay the attorney’s fees for the person or group who made the FOIL request.

Alex Camarda with the reform group Reinvent Albany said the provision, which already exists in several states including Florida and Illinois, is key to making the FOIL process functional. He said those requesting the information often can’t afford a potentially lengthy court battle.

“All too often, state agencies don’t follow the spirit and even the letter of the Freedom of Information Act,” Camarda said.

Cuomo has until the end of the year to sign or veto the bill. It has not yet been sent to him. Backers include the League of Women Voters, NYU’s Brennan Center, the New York Press Club and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which sent a letter signed by The New York Times and NPR, among others.

Camarda said Cuomo, by signing the bill, would have a chance to fulfill his campaign promise to run a transparent administration.

“The governor has made transparency a hallmark of his administration; you may recall he said that his administration would be the most transparent in New York history,” Camarda said. “This bill will be a critical test of whether he’s committed to transparency.”

The governor vetoed a similar bill two years ago, saying that it was an “unworkable, inequitable and piecemeal approach to FOIL reform,” and that the standard for awarding attorney’s fees should be applied both to the state agency and to the person bringing the lawsuit. The measure was backed by the governor’s own Committee on Open Government.

Camarda said those changes have been made in the new bill.

“The standard for fees was addressed,” he said. “We think he should sign this legislation.”

Cuomo in 2015 instead issued an executive order that required state agencies to shorten the time frame for responding to FOIL requests. In 2016, he signed a bill that limited the time that state agencies spend in court appealing a FOIL request decision that they disagree with. The governor has unsuccessfully tried to get the Legislature to agree to expand the law to the Senate and Assembly. Currently, they are exempt from the law.

A spokesman for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, said in a statement that “the legislation — one of more than 500 that passed both houses in the final weeks of the session — remains under review by Counsel’s Office.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.