Do you know whom your local government and school officials are calling on their work-related cell phones? Neither does the Observer-Dispatch, several weeks after reporters filed Freedom of Information Law requests for the records from four local officials. For one reason of another, detailed cell-phone records containing call logs have yet to be received from any of the local governments.
Do you know whom your local government and school officials are calling on their work-related cell phones?
Neither does the Observer-Dispatch, several weeks after reporters filed Freedom of Information Law requests for the records from four local officials. For one reason or another, detailed cell-phone records containing call logs have yet to be received from any of the local governments.
While some of the local governments say the information is forthcoming, such delays fly in the face of the purpose of open-government law, the state’s leading official on the subject says.
Public officials should promptly make cell-phone information available to the public, said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. That would allow residents to scrutinize whether the phones are being overused or used in improper ways not related to business, he said.
“Certainly, the public has a right to know about that,” he said.
On Feb. 28, O-D reporters filed FOIL requests for cell-phone records including but not limited to bills and call logs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 for Herkimer County Administrator James Wallace, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, Frankfort Town Supervisor Joseph Kinney and Utica City School District Superintendent Marilyn Skermont.
The purpose of the requests was to determine the availability and speed of access to such records as the nation’s newspapers mark the third-annual Sunshine Week. The first Sunshine Week was launched in March 2005 to initiate a dialogue on the importance of open government to the public.
Need for speed
The Herkimer County attorney’s office responded the day after the request was made for Wallace’s records. The response stated the billing information and call logs would be made available within 20 business days.
Sandra Rodriguez, clerk of the Utica Board of Education, responded similarly March 6 to the O-D’s request for Skermont’s records to say the information would be available within 30 business days.
Neither deadline has expired, but the question remains: How useful are FOIL requests if it takes weeks to produce the records?
Freeman said the only acceptable reason for delays would be if the officials are working through legitimate privacy concerns with the call logs. Delay for the sake of delay defeats the purpose of the FOIL requests, he said.
“It seems to me that agencies should be responding promptly,” he said.
Records for Skermont were sent to a school-district attorney, and there haven’t been any problems in the process, so the files will be released soon, Rodriguez said.
When called Thursday, Skermont said she provided the information almost immediately and was surprised it hadn’t been sent out yet. She said she would make sure the O-D receives the records by Monday.
“I can’t understand what took so long,” she said. “If it’s public domain, then you have a right to it.”
A learning experience
Wallace said the release of his records has been delayed for a number of reasons – mainly because he has never had his cell-phone records requested before. Wallace and the county attorney’s office had to learn the proper procedures, he said.
“We wanted to make sure we did it right,” he said. “And of course everyone deserves those records – no question about it.”
The records were nearly ready to be sent out last week, until a mistake was recognized, Wallace said. Cell-phone bills don’t necessarily start at the beginning of a month, and officials realized the records compiled didn’t include the last couple weeks of December, he said.
It was also determined people’s private cell-phone numbers could be redacted, so calls had to be made to find out what calls Wallace made to private cell phones, he said.
But Freeman said he doesn’t see why those phone numbers should be redacted. Among the many calls public officials make, it would be difficult to determine what numbers are for private cell phones or whose phone numbers they are, he said.
The last four digits of cell-phone numbers could sometimes be redacted for privacy reasons in certain cases, he said. He cited the example of the phone number of a student contacted by a school guidance counselor or the phone number of a police informant.
But there’s no reason for redactions in the majority of other cases, Freeman said.
If redacted records are received, the person who filed the FOIL request should always appeal unless it’s clear the redactions were made for legitimate privacy reasons, he said.
When contacted about Freeman’s statement, Wallace said the county would supply the personal cell-phone records if that is the correct process.
“We’re going to go by the law – whatever the law is,” he said.
Wallace on March 10 was one of the panelists at a Freedom of Information Law presentation by Freeman that was sponsored by the Observer-Dispatch at SUNYIT in Marcy. That evening, Wallace said he’d learned more about open-government law in recent years, and that Herkimer County is attempting to adhere to the law.
No records, no requirement
Frankfort Supervisor Kinney doesn’t have a town-issued cell phone, so no records were available for him, the town said.
Kinney said he is readily accessible at the town office and also receives many phone calls at home.
The town has responded to other FOIL requests, Kinney said, and he believes in the process.
“I wholeheartedly support it,” he said. “I see that it’s a positive, and I think we all need transparency in government.”
Oneida County sent the O-D billing records for Oneida County Executive Picente, but AT&T doesn’t provide the county with call logs, said Linda Dillon, an Oneida County attorney. A special request would have to be made for the call logs, and the county doesn’t have to make that request because the files aren’t in its possession, she said.
Freeman said he agreed with that determination.
Dillon said the county receives many other FOIL requests, and officials try to respond to all of them as quickly as possible.
“Everything we do is open to public scrutiny,” she said, “and should be.”