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Does your local government honor FOIL requests? An open government group puts it to the test

A group which pushes for transparency in local government is offering mixed reviews of the municipalities they contacted, seeking information through New York State's Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL.

The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government recently sent FOIL requests to 16 local governments in Erie and Niagara Counties, seeking copies of emails and text messages exchanged between elected officials.

"We sent it out at the same day and time and we'd track whether people are complying with the law," said Paul Wolf, president of the Coalition. "They're supposed to acknowledge a request within five (business) days."

According to the Coalition's report, 13 of the 16 local governments contacted acknowledged receiving their respective FOIL requests within the required period. Four responded the same day: Town of Amherst, Town of Lancaster, Town of Lockport and the Town of Lewiston. The Erie County Clerk's Office, Town of Cheektowaga and Town of Tonawanda acknowledged receipt one day later. Also complying within five business days were the Town of Wheatfield, Niagara County, Town of Hamburg, Town of West Seneca, City of Niagara Falls and City of Lockport.

The City of Buffalo acknowledged receipt of the Coalition's FOIL request nine days later, while the Town of Clarence did so 23 days later and after a second request.

One municipality, according to Wolf, did not reply at all.

"The worst offender by far was the City of North Tonawanda, where their clerk there hasn't responded to emails, letters, faxes, phone calls," he said. "Which is disturbing, in that this is a state law that allows people to request information. Such a request shouldn't be completely ignored."

There are exceptions for which you cannot use FOIL to acquire information, which Wolf noted, including police investigations, and employee and personnel matters.

While most government offices the Coalition contacted were compliant by verifying receipt of requests within five business days, the actual sharing of information was not done as quickly. According to the report, the Town of Amherst shared 16 pages worth of requested information just one day later. Other governments shared information anywhere from 16 days to more than two months after receiving their FOIL requests. 

Buffalo, Niagara County, Wheatfield and North Tonawanda did not provide any requested information as of the date the Coalition prepared its report.

Wolf also criticized the Town of Hamburg, saying while it acknowledged receiving a FOIL request, it required a payment of $600 to share the desired information.

"Every one of us has a right under the law to request information from government officials," he said. "That is a right that should not be treated lightly. People have a right to know what their government officials are doing. They have a right to request documents. It's a state law and a federal law."