Coalition hails New York Senate passage of FOIL reform bill

May 29—A bid to reform New York's system of information laws got a boost from state lawmakers earlier this month.

Members of the New York State Senate passed a bill that would allow for the award of "reasonable" attorney fees, as determined by the courts, when a person or entity wins a case involving requests made under New York's Freedom of Information Law. The bill still must be approved by the state assembly and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul before it can become law.

Still, the senate passage was hailed by open government advocates who have been lobbying lawmakers to approve it along with several other reform proposals they believe would help fix what the New York Coalition for Open Government has described as the state's "broken" FOIL system.

"All too often, requests are ignored or improperly denied," the coalition said in a press release issued after the senate vote on the bill related to legal fees. "Unlike other states, New York has no penalties for violating the law. There is no entity that enforces the law. Not even the attorney general, as the so-called 'People's Attorney,' offers assistance to the public.

"Currently, the only way to address violations of FOIL is to hire an attorney and sue, which is not easy to do. Government officials know that the likelihood of being sued for violating FOIL is slim to none, and they act accordingly," the coalition added in its release.

The bill approved by the senate was co-sponsored by Sen. John Liu, D-Queens, and Assembly member Phil Steck, D-Schenectedy. The bill allows for individuals and entities who file FOIL lawsuits and win to be awarded reasonable attorney fees. Coalition members support the reform, noting that receiving attorney fees under current state law requires "jumping through several hoops that other states do not require."

A total of 30 organizations across the state, including the coalition, signed a letter in support of the bill. The proposed legislation is part of a larger package of FOIL reforms advocates have for months been calling on state lawmakers and Hochul to enact.

Other changes in FOIL recommended by advocates are covered by other bills currently under consideration, including the Report FOIL Reporting Act, which would require public agencies to publicly report basic information about how they deal with the FOIL requests they are receiving, and the FOIL Timeline Act, which would establish a set maximum amount of time agencies have to deny or fulfill information requests.

"It is an election year and what better thing to put on your palm card than you voted for the biggest open government reform in years?" said Paul Wolf, a Williamsville attorney who serves as the coalition's president.

The New York Coalition for Open Government is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization driven entirely by volunteers. Members of the group advocate for open, transparent government.