Elections Board fails transparency test

A watchdog group has sent freedom of information requests to about 20 councils to check whether they are following the law. Many have failed.

When a good government group decided to audit whether county election boards were complying with state open government laws, the first hurdle was getting someone – anyone – from those boards respond to an email or phone call.

It was not easy.

Last summer the New York Coalition for Open Government — a group that tracks government agencies’ compliance with freedom of information and open assembly laws — emailed 17 county election commissions across the state asking how often commissioners held meetings. meetings, whether those meetings were made public and whether agendas and meetings were posted online. In many cases, they followed up with phone calls.

Eleven of 17 commissions, including those in Erie and Niagara counties, did not bother to respond.

Of the six that did, only one said they advertised upcoming meetings and posted agendas online. The other five said their election commissioners meet regularly, as required by law, but do not invite the public or publish meeting agendas and minutes.

An Oswego County Election Commissioner “seemed flabbergasted by the questions,” the coalition reported earlier this week.

“[The commissioner] did not understand what the board would meet about, what actions they would take publicly or privately, or what minutes would be taken,” according to the coalition report.

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The coalition followed with a formal Freedom of Information Act request, adding two more counties, for a total of 19 electoral commissions. Only five acknowledged receipt of FOIL’s request in writing within five days, as required by law. Four others eventually responded, but after the five-day deadline.

“Amazingly, 10 election commissions have never recognized our request for FOIL,” said Paul Wolf, a Buffalo-area attorney who is the coalition’s founder and executive director.

So the coalition sent a second FOIL request a month later. This one didn’t fare much better.

In the end, only 10 of 19 councils, including Erie County, provided the coalition with meeting agendas and minutes. The Niagara County Board of Elections was never heard.

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“A pretty pitiful success rate,” Wolf said, noting that a board only responded a week ago, nearly six months after the fact. State law gives public agencies up to 20 business days to respond to FOIL requests.

Among the report’s findings: The state should create a body with the authority, resources, and political independence to monitor and enforce transparency laws, applying penalties when agencies persistently violate them.

“Frankly, we are tired of going out report after report of breaking the law,” Wolf said.

Read the full report here.

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