Editor’s note: this article has been updated for timeliness.
Look no further than the daily flood of government press releases for proof that many politicians favor a policy of mushroom management: keeping the public in the dark and feeding them BS.
Sorting fact from spin can be a chore. Despite increased access to government data online over the years, some agencies are more transparent than others, information is tricky to secure and many people are unaware of their right to know. But, help has arrived.
To cast light on these issues, journalists launched Sunshine Week more than a decade ago to combat increased government secrecy. As a primer, the Press has compiled a list of links to help demystify searching government data online and requesting records under New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). What the public does with all of this information is up to you, dear readers.
“Government transparency isn’t just the concern of journalists,” said Lucy Dalglish and Steve Engelberg of the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), which started Sunshine Week, an annual, national initiative that highlights the importance of open government. “It’s for everyone.”
Sunshine Week coincides with National Freedom of Information Day, which falls on the March 16 birthday of James Madison, a founding father who wrote the First Amendment.
Sunshine Week follows recent Press Club of Long Island (PCLI) confrontations with Nassau and Suffolk police over the reduced amount of info provided in local police blotters. A 2012 Press story also found that of the 13 towns on LI, Babylon and Islip were the most reluctant to comply with FOIL requests. And LI government agencies scoring a ‘C’ in an unprecedented report card grading local compliance with open records laws—the result of a joint 16-month project between the Press and PCLI.
Before filing FOIL requests to access government documents, members of the public can search to see if the info they seek—government worker salaries, campaign donations and even many court cases—is already available online through a number of handy databases.
Want to see if an ex, tenant, employee or neighbor have been arrested? Some court records can be found online, although results vary on jurisdiction and the most detailed information still requires in-person requests to court clerks’ offices—especially in small town and village courts.
But, the state Unified Court System website allows users to search cases online in a section dubbed e-Courts. Users can log in as members of the public to WebCrims to track current criminal cases by defendant name and WebCivil Supreme to search lawsuits by name of plaintiff or defendant—WebCivil sometimes includes PDF of court documents, too—but criminal cases are scrubbed from the website after sentencing. The main page also includes an attorney directory that can be useful.
Those looking for a federal criminal defendant or lawsuit can sign up for the far-more-informative pacer.gov, short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, and click “find a case.” Unlike the state courts, however, pacer charges 10 cents per page, so users need to enter billing information.
Suffolk residents can read basic, recent—repeat: basic, recent—arrest and incident info in its raw form by reading the Media Supplimental Reports. The Nassau police website does not include such specifics. The FBI website posts frequently requested “hot topic” documents online.
Curious how many sex offenders live nearby? The state Division of Criminal Justice Services has a database that allows users to search by name, county and zipcode here. But, that database only includes Level 2 and 3 sex offenders, the designation given to those more likely to be recidivists. Parents for Megan’s Law has a database that includes Level 1 sex offenders, the least likely to offend again.
Interested in how your elected officials are spending tax dollars? The New York State Attorney General’s office created a website billed as a clearing house for state government info at nyopengovernment.com. So does the state Comptroller’s office at openbooknewyork.com. But, sometimes it’s best to go straight to the source—like searching lobbyists via the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics website at jcope.ny.gov.
Want to know who’s greasing the palms of local lawmakers? Tracking campaign donations can be done on the state elections board website, elections.ny.gov, clicking “campaign finance” in the left column, then clicking “view disclosure reports” and choose a search by names of candidates or donors.
But, that database works only for those looking to follow the money to their town, county and state elected officials. To track donors to members of Congress, visit the Federal Election Commission website at fec.gov
Curious how much the government worker next door makes? For information that is lacking in the state’s websites—namely, public salaries—nonprofit groups, such as the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy, compile the info into searchable online databases. Their website, SeeThroughNY allows users to search public employee salaries, pensions, contracts and other info for various levels of government.
Skeptical of how a nonprofit is spending its money? GuideStar.org is an online database of IRS-recognized nonprofit groups’ tax filings, which sometimes include staff salaries—although the filings can be dated and incomplete, depending upon the group’s bookkeeping.
Unable to attend your local government meetings? State Senate and Assembly meetings as well as Nassau (a big red link appears on meeting days) and Suffolk (Users without Real Player will have to download it) county legislatures all live webcast their legislative meetings. More than half of the 13 towns do the same or something similar, except for Babylon and Islip, which air their meetings on Cablevision channel 18 instead.
Towns that webcast their meetings and archive the videos online include North Hempstead, Smithtown, Southold, Brookhaven, Southampton and Shelter Island. The towns of Hempstead and Oyster Bay started webcasting their meetings in 2016, but Hempstead doesn’t archive the videos like Oyster Bay, although the town sometimes takes weeks to post the videos. East Hampton town board meetings are broadcast live on LTV and then the video is archived on the town clerk’s website. In Huntington, videos of board meeting are posted online within 48 hours and users can click on the agenda item their interested in to be brought to the part of the video they want to watch. Riverhead doesn’t live stream their meetings, but videos are posted online afterward.
Looking to search deeds, mortgages and judgments? The Suffolk clerk’s office allows users to search for records on its website, although more detailed records require a visit to the office during business hours, which are often more like bankers’ hours. The Nassau clerk does not have an online search function, but the Nassau comptroller posts county contracts on its website.
Should none of these resources have the information sought, tips on filing FOIL requests for government documents can be found on the state Committee on Open Government’s website, which includes sample letters to use as a template. To save time and money, file requests as an email and ask for responses electronically—the government can charge 25 cents per page for paper copies of requested files.
Have fun storming the castle!
Full disclosure: Timothy Bolger previously chaired the Freedom of Information Committee for the Press Club of Long Island.