Earlier this year, Streetsblog filed a set of freedom of information requests in our attempt to reveal the political maneuvering behind the campaign to get rid of the Prospect Park West bike lane. Since then we’ve received voluminous responses from the offices of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and City Council Member James Vacca, which have helped fill in some missing details. Thanks to those responses, we now have a clearer sense of how former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer and a resident of Prospect Park West, has played a central role in the bike lane opposition. What we don’t have, for the time being, is any Weinshall correspondence furnished by her current employer, the City University of New York, in response to our freedom of information request.
CUNY has repeatedly denied access to Weinshall’s email correspondence related to the Prospect Park West bike lane, records which CUNY admits exist but refuses to disclose. CUNY has also withheld PPW-related correspondence from Brooklyn College dean Louise Hainline, who conducted business for the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” from her CUNY account.
Information gleaned from other FOIL requests revealed that both Weinshall and Hainline attempted to use CUNY resources to undermine the Prospect Park West project, but CUNY has maintained that the records Streetsblog requested are “personal” in nature and not subject to New York’s freedom of information law.
The only records CUNY has furnished are a handful of emails between Hainline’s husband, Brooklyn College professor Micha Tomkiewicz, and Eric McClure, a co-founder of the neighborhood group Park Slope Neighbors, which organized in support of the PPW redesign before and after implementation. (In the exchange, Tomkiewicz asked McClure for the raw data from a Park Slope Neighbors speed gun survey of Prospect Park West. “The topic of competing transportation interests within a community is a popular research topic of my students,” he wrote. “Reliable data are precious.” McClure shared the speed gun results, but nothing in CUNY’s disclosure indicates that Tomkiewicz did in fact use the data in the classroom.)
CUNY contends that the Weinshall emails they are withholding are exempt from disclosure because they are personal communications “not related to CUNY,” and would cause “economic and personal hardship” to Iris Weinshall and to others who wrote and received them.
Streetsblog is now challenging CUNY’s refusal to disclose the information we requested. Last month we filed a petition in New York County Supreme Court [PDF] seeking the release of the records in our March FOIL requests. The thrust of our petition is that CUNY has claimed an exemption where none exists.
There is no blanket exemption for personal communications under New York’s freedom of information law. New York courts have determined that such correspondence is in fact subject to disclosure except in certain cases where disclosing the information would cause an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” CUNY has not shown that the withheld records meet this criteria.
In fact, emails that we know are being withheld contradict the claim that releasing the correspondence would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. For instance, one of the records CUNY claims it cannot relinquish, which Streetsblog obtained from a separate FOIL request, is a message from bike lane opponent and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel to Iris Weinshall’s CUNY account that was copied to a New York Times reporter [PDF].
To qualify for an exception, CUNY must also show that the emails are not relevant to its work. Streetsblog contests that claim as well. We already know that Weinshall and Hainline attempted to have City College professor Buzz Paaswell connect them to traffic engineers who could produce a study portraying the PPW redesign in a negative light, and discussed having CUNY students perform such a study. A CUNY administrator and CUNY dean trying to enlist the help of a CUNY professor and CUNY students in their campaign to eradicate a city project — that is, by definition, related to CUNY’s work.
Releasing the emails may embarrass CUNY officials by revealing more about the extent of their work to undermine the Prospect Park West project and NYC DOT’s bike program, but that is not legitimate grounds for withholding the records.
Our case is scheduled to be heard in New York County Supreme Court on July 19. You can review Streetsblog’s petition to the court in this PDF.