VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — City of Binghamton officials have been struggling to properly handle public records requests in recent months, sometimes outside the scope of state laws.
While issues with processing requests for records under the statutory requirements of the Freedom of Information Law aren’t uncommon, the City of Binghamton’s problems appear to be more serious and prevalent.
Around a dozen records requests have been submitted to the City of Binghamton by WSKG over the past few months. But not one was acknowledged by the city clerk’s office within five business days, as the law requires.
“Acknowledging receipt of the request is sort of the bare minimum under the law that you’re required to do,” Heather Murray, managing attorney of the Local Journalism Project at the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, said.*
Some of the requests submitted by WSKG were eventually fulfilled after formal administrative appeals were made to Binghamton Mayor Rich David, though others remain outstanding.
Other requestors have also complained to city council in recent weeks to point out issues with the process. One requestor, Teri Rennia, said the city clerk did not provide her with records for months, even after she paid for copies of the documents.
“I brought it in and I said, when can I expect to receive them? And he said, well it should take about five business days, five to 10 business days. And I said, but you already have it all because you were able to tell me it was 85 pages, so why would it take that long? At this point, you’re hitting print, right?” Rennia explained.
Rennia, who previously served on city council and currently chairs the Binghamton City Democratic Committee, said her check was cashed the next day, but she didn’t receive the records until two months later.
Executive assistant to the mayor and mayor-elect, Jared Kraham, said the city has seen an abnormal increase of FOIL request submissions over the past year. He attributes this largely to state law changes allowing more police department documents to be released under FOIL.
Kraham acknowledged more resources may need to be dedicated to help the city clerk’s and corporation counsel’s offices process FOIL requests, but said he doesn’t see it as a major priority for the public at large.
“There needs to be resources allocated towards them and when you talk to the residents, it’s certainly not in their top 10 issues that they care about,” Kraham said. “But, nonetheless, it’s a part of good government, it’s part of transparent government.”
One of the records that hasn’t been provided to WSKG is an updated copy of the log of FOIL requests received by the city, kept by the city clerk’s office. A previous version of this log provided to WSKG showed that the city clerk’s office had received over 80 FOIL requests between the beginning of January and the end of May 2021.
“It’s not a valid excuse,” Murray said pointing to the findings of a state panel largely charged with interpreting the law. “Committee on Open Government has found time and time again in advisory opinions that not having enough staff to handle requests is not a valid reason for denying or failing to review requests.”
Kraham is set to begin his term as mayor beginning Jan. 1 2022.
*Full Disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG underwriter.