And it usually takes a long time to get responses from the ESDC, especially compared to more responsive agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
(The ESDC's public affairs office, by contrast, generally responds promptly to my queries, though the level of detail, um, varies.)
Seeking info on affordable housing
Last December, I filed a FOIL request for records explaining whether the ESDC considered the availability of tax-exempt financing for affordable housing when it was approving Atlantic Yards.
For months, I got a certified letter each month explaining that they were still looking, given that my request was broad. That's hard to judge, but it sure seemed like a long time.
In a brief public comment during the last desultory moments of the July 30 public hearing on Atlantic Yards, I mentioned the lingering request and asked for it to be resolved. I finally got a response in August. Coincidence or result? I can't be sure.
Coincidence or result? I can't be sure. Eliot Brown of the New York Observer had filed a FOIL request, and wrote that he received the report in response to that request.
I file my requests via email but I get the responses via snail mail, certified, at $5.54 a clip for the thinnest of envelopes.
This adds up.
First, I get an acknowledgment that they've received my request. Someday, perhaps, I get the response to my request.
In between, however, I typically get a monthly letter indicating that they're still searching for responsive records.
Other agencies manage with greater efficiency and lower cost. The New York City Economic Development Corporation responds by email.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Department of City Planning send both email and snail mail (at $.44/letter, right), but don't certify the latter.
If other agencies can manage, couldn't the ESDC do so as well?
Spokesman Warner Johnston responded, "We maintain the highest standards when it comes to following the provision of FOILs and utilize certified mail as it is the most reliable method to ensure that FOILs are received by the time set by law."
Sure, certified mail is the most reliable method to ensure that a delivery attempt is made by the time set by law. Actual receipt, as I've discovered, is another matter.
Johnston added, "We spend exponentially more tax dollars and staff hours in researching and gathering information for broadly worded FOIL requests than we do in postage expense."
Similarly, as noted in the 10/14/09 letter at right, in response to a 4/20/09 request, the ESDC FOIL officer told me:
ESDC continues to sort and review a large number of documents for potentially responsive information at considerable agency time and effort.I don't doubt that in-house effort costs more than postage, though I suspect that the ESDC also has spent exponentially more paying environmental consultant AKRF--the tab neared $5 million in May 2007--and outside counsel for the lawsuits the project has engendered.
Also, some of that cost responding to FOIL requests might have been obviated had the ESDC been more transparent from the start.
And the ESDC has not exactly been penny-pinching; after all, as the New York Post reported in September, former agency head Avi Schick was paid his $213,000 annual salary for eight months after his resignation.
That $142,000 could pay for a lot of transparency.
I'd note that the process of sending a certified letter takes more time than email.
It's not a huge issue, but, if and when some agency or consultant takes a broad look at FOIL practices, it's worth consideration: why have other agencies decided they need not maintain such high (and somewhat more costly) standards?
While some city agencies have been somewhat more responsive than the ESDC, that doesn't prove true across the board. Last year I tried to figure out how the city decided to add $105 million to Atlantic Yards subsidies.
At first, I was stonewalled. Then I didn't get a real answer.
In City Limits, Jarrett Murphy reports on the Bloomberg administration's very mixed record regarding transparency:
Over the past eight years, Bloomberg's City Hall has put an unprecedented amount of public information online. Most agencies have become more accessible to the press, even if getting city officials on the phone can be difficult.
But some parts of the Bloomberg administration—some of the rooms in the house—are as or more impenetrable as they were under Giuliani. And according to watchdogs, researchers and reporters, gaining access to some agencies' documents through the Freedom of Information Law has been unjustifiably difficult.