Saratoga Springs City Attorney Michael Phillips presented data at the June 20 City Council meeting indicating the rate of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests the city is receiving has doubled during the Kim administration. No one on the Council bothered to ask why.
The Facts And Nothing But The Facts?
Phillips repeatedly punctuated his presentation with the assurance that he was just laying out the facts and leaving it to others to “draw your own conclusions.” The problem is the Council was not interested in drawing any conclusions.
The facts Phillips presented comparing FOIL requests beginning with 2021 during the previous Meg Kelly administration with requests made during the Kim administration through June of this year (2023) are truly stunning.
|2021 (Kelly Period)||333||4|
|2022 (Kim Period)||557||21|
|2023 Jan-June (Kim Period)||315||7|
Phillips observed that based on the demand so far this year, he projects 630 requests for 2023. The yearly rate of FOIL requests has just about doubled since Kim took office.
A Meaningless List
In his presentation, Phillips displayed slides showing who asked for five or more FOIL requests each year. He dubbed these “frequent flyers.” Phillips’ attempt to be witty seemed to imply that those people and organizations with the most FOIL requests were somehow abusing the system.
Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi then asked that he read aloud the names on the lists adding to the feeling that this was an attempt to somehow shame those who dared exercise their legal right to ask for city documents.
Sanghvi also wanted to know whether the most frequent person requesting FOILs in 2022 was a city resident. This seemed like an odd question. According to Phillips list many if not most FOIL requests come from companies or individuals doing business in the city and the law firms representing them. Obviously many of theses requests would be coming from individuals who may not live in the city.
Blogger’s Name Included in Phillips’ Hall of Shame
Although this blogger’s name got mentioned in Phillips’ presentation, I was not among the top FOILers. This blogger’s name did not appear in the list for 2021 “frequent Flyers” and is well down on the list for 2022 and 2023 .
The requests that put me on the 2022 and 2023 lists have been the result of the unwillingness of the members of this Council to respond to pretty much all my inquiries, whether by email or even asking questions during the public comment period at Council meetings.
The previous Council members were available, whether by email or telephone. The need to FOIL to get information during the past administration was minimal. So this explains the increase in my FOIL requests but what about the rest?
The Central Question That Went Unasked
As in the famous Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most telling aspect of this part of the Council meeting was the question that was never asked:
Why did the requests for FOILs explode in 2022 and 2023?
The corollaries to this question are:
Why did Phillips’ investigation stop with the statistics rather than attempt to understand the source of the explosion?
Did the change in administration from Kelly to Kim factor somehow into the increase?
Why didn’t anyone on the Council ask Phillips if he had any idea about why the change?
Why didn’t anyone on the Council tell Phillips to extend his work by looking into the causes of the change?
The Real Purpose Of Phillips’ Presentation
Following Phillips’ presentation, Kim announced he would be seeking funding for yet another staff person for his office to handle FOILs. In hindsight, it is pretty clear that Phillips’ presentation was a pitch on the Mayor’s behalf to hire yet another employee.
As we have no idea why the FOILs increased, it is impossible to thoughtfully speculate about what can be done to address handling the number.
In its editorial on this issue, the Daily Gazette praised Kim for wanting to reduce the backlog of FOIL requests but asked whether there might be other ways to at least ease the problem other than hiring another employee:
To reduce the number of FOIL requests filed, city officials should look through the existing FOILs for commonalities.
If several people are requesting the same or similar information, or if the information being requested doesn’t require some kind of legal review, the city should consider posting that information on its website so people don’t have to formally request it.
This “proactive disclosure” can be done at little expense, the information only has to be posted once, and it cuts down on the number of FOIL requests that staff have to process.
Another tip: If the city has information that’s regularly requested, it should gather it in a single place and have it readily accessible to its clerks so they can respond faster to common requests.
City officials also should be more generous with releasing public information in general to avoid putting citizens in the position to having to ask for it in the first place.Editorial June 26, 2023
There Is Something Seriously Wrong Going On
I honestly can’t think of any business or public organization I have dealt with that would not have pressed for answers as to why this increase occurred and whether there was some way of addressing requests for information that might ease this problem other than hiring more staff.
The fact that no one asked any serious questions only adds to the worry about how poorly this city is currently being managed.
The fact that FOILs have spiked during the last year and a half raises serious questions about how information is being provided to the public. This issue deserves proper investigation, but it is regrettably clear that there will be none.