Each year, the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press organizes what is known as “Sunshine Week” — a nationwide call to action for journalists, educators, elected and appointed officials and private citizens to promote transparency and good government. This year, in anticipation of Sunshine Week, which is to be held from March 11-17, 2018, local journalists have submitted requests under the New York State Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) to public school districts seeking documents and records relating to school board expenditures. We are aware of at least two school district clients in Westchester County who have received these requests.
FOIL has also been in the news lately, as Governor Cuomo recently signed legislation increasing the potential attorney’s fee awards for persons who prevail against public agencies, such as school districts and other municipalities, in lawsuits filed under FOIL. This legislation (Chapter 453 of the Laws of 2017) serves to further incentivize public agencies to comply with the requirements of FOIL in good faith or risk increased financial penalties. Importantly, the new amendment gives courts the discretion to award attorney’s fees to a prevailing member of the public upon the court’s finding that the agency failed to respond to a request or appeal within the statutory time limits, it also mandates the court award attorney’s fees and other litigation costs to a prevailing member of the public upon the court’s finding that the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access to records.
Accordingly, all municipalities, school districts and other public entities should be aware of their obligations under FOIL and should never take their obligations under FOIL lightly —not only because of the recent FOIL amendment, but in the spirit of good and transparent government.