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Adams Administration Withholds 311 Emails From Streetsblog

“An agency repeatedly issuing itself extensions to respond to FOIL requests is inconsistent with FOIL’s purpose," said one lawyer.

12:03 AM EST on January 24, 2024

Graphic: Martin Schapiro|

Our basic request for records has been extended 13 times (one extension not pictured).

Should we even bother filing a 311 complaint?

The city agency overseeing the 311 system has again been caught flouting government transparency standards — this time stalling the release of emails that Streetsblog requested following an investigation into ignored 311 service requests.

Government watchdogs are raising new alarms.

“An agency repeatedly issuing itself extensions to respond to Freedom of Information Law requests is inconsistent with FOIL’s purpose," said Heather Murray, an attorney with the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic who represents Streetsblog. "Endless delays are tantamount to a denial, and the lack of responsiveness from the Office of Technology and Innovation here only serves to keep important information from the public and thereby erode the public’s trust in its government.”

The saga began in late 2021, when Streetsblog published the investigation documenting how the NYPD routinely ignores 311 service requests about illegal parking, reckless driving and abandoned vehicles — a disregard that has fostered a culture of lawlessness and danger on city streets.

Prior to that story, Streetsblog sought interviews and information from the agency overseeing 311 — then called Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, now called the Office of Technology and Innovation. But the agency largely ignored those requests.

So Streetsblog filed a request under the New York Freedom of Information Law for emails related to the 311 system sent or received by the agency commissioner over three months in late 2021. Under FOIL, an agency must fulfill or deny a request within a "reasonable" period.

Nineteen months later, the agency is straining the definition of that word.

Since the original FOIL request, OTI has extended its window for fulfilling the request 13 times, each time saying it was "continuing to research and review" the basic request.

Streetsblog filed an appeal after the fifth extension in late 2022, arguing that the seemingly endless delays amounted, effectively, to an unjust denial of a legitimate request for public records.

Under FOIL, agencies that receive an appeal must provide the records or "fully explain" why the request is being denied, and send a copy of that response to the New York State Committee on Open Government.

OTI did neither of those things, saying only that an appeal was "premature" because there were 2,564 potentially relevant emails and that the agency was continuing to "research and review" the request. The Committee on Open Government confirmed that it never received the required copy of the appeal.

By this point, good government activists are impatient.

"The longer it takes for public records to be released, the more the public rightfully can ask, 'What is there to hide?'" asked Rachael Fauss of the group Reinvent Albany. "Agencies endlessly dragging out FOIL requests ... hope that the public just forgets or gives up. Fortunately, the courts usually consider endless extensions a 'constructive denial' and back the public if they choose to sue, but that requires resources that many people or outlets do not have."

Worse, OTI is a repeat offender when it comes to dragging out legitimate records requests. The agency did the same exact thing — endlessly stalling a prior Streetsblog FOIL request for responses to 311 customer satisfaction surveys.

In that case, the agency prolonged its response eight times — and the Committee on Open Government issued an advisory opinion saying the agency was acting unreasonably.

"It was reasonable for [Streetblog] to construe this failure ... as a constructive denial on the part of the agency," the committee wrote, adding that Streetsblog's appeal in that case was also not premature. "The agency has a responsibility to either provide access to the records sought or to 'fully explain' the reason for further denial of access."

With that advisory note in hand, Streetsblog prepared a story on the delays and obfuscations and reached out to the agency for comment. OTI coughed up the records that day.

Streetsblog tried that strategy again for this story, reaching out to OTI before its publication. This time, it didn't work.

But an agency spokesperson, who, oddly, requested anonymity, offered the following statement:

“OTI takes its legal responsibilities to disclose public documents seriously and works diligently to fulfill requests from media outlets in the manner required by law. We continue to work to complete this voluminous and broad request as quickly as possible.”

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