Municipal Report Card: Fire Island Governments Get C+ for Transparency

The half-dozen municipalities that govern Fire Island scored a cumulative grade of C+ on a recent report card that ranked nearly 200 Long Island localities’ responsiveness to public records requests.
The News tallied Fire Island’s grade from the Long Island Open Records Report Card, which scored how local government entities responded to identical requests under the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Fire Island’s grade is the average of Suffolk County getting a C+, the Town of Babylon a D, the Town of Brookhaven an A-, the Town of Islip a C, the Village of Saltaire an A- and the Village of Ocean Beach a C-.“I’m not sure that, in some government agencies, government officials are as receptive to the public and the news media as they should be,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government (COOG), which oversees FOIL.The report card, published in March, was a joint project between the Long Island Press, where this reporter is the editor in chief, and the Press Club of Long Island, on which the author chairs the Freedom of Information committee. Fire Island scored slightly higher than the rest of Long Island, which got a cumulative grade of C in the report.Documents requested in the report included the list of names, titles and salaries of employees, copies of agencies’ FOIL policies as well as minutes and agendas of recent board meetings, among other files. Localities were also graded on whether they met response deadlines set by law and general helpfulness, as well as other factors.The two local municipalities that scored above average were Saltaire, which governs the second westernmost community on the island, and Brookhaven, which oversees the eastern half of Seaview through Smith Point County Park. Brookhaven lost a point because a follow-up was required to complete the request after the clerk missed a response deadline. Saltaire lost a point because it didn’t maintain a document known as a subject matter listing – a document that FOIL requires government entities maintain and lists the types of files agencies keep.Suffolk County, which scored the same grade as Fire Island’s average, was sometimes difficult to get responses from, depending upon the county agency. For example, the county clerk scored an A+ for perfect compliance, but the county executive’s office got an F for extensive delays and not turning over all the documents requested. But the county vowed to do better as a result of the report.”Many Suffolk County departments received high grades in response to their FOIL requests, however there is room for improvement in some departments,” the county said in a statement. “We have already taken action to develop best practices in response to FOIL requests and will create a performance measurement tool for departments to track responsiveness to FOIL requests.”The three municipalities that scored below Fire Island’s average were Islip and Babylon towns as well as Ocean Beach village.Islip, which oversees western Seaview through the Fire Island Lighthouse, had the highest bill for any FOIL request on Long Island – $221– because its board meeting minutes were only available in the form of hundreds of pages of transcripts, although they charged the legally allowed 25 cents per page. The town lost points for missing a response deadline, because follow-ups were required to get responses and for not emailing any of the documents, as is required by FOIL when requested and possible.Babylon, which has its southeastern border in Robert Moses State Park on the western tip of Fire Island, had the lowest score on the barrier island with its barely passing grade. It lost points for missing a response deadline, because follow-ups were required to fulfill the requests, it didn’t supply its legally required FOIL policy and didn’t email the documents as requested.Ocean Beach, the island’s second lowest scorer, lost points for not maintaining a subject matter listing, because follow-ups were required to obtain documents inexplicably not included in their reply, for charging for paper copies of board meeting minutes and agendas that were found on the village’s website and therefore could have been emailed as well as for not providing its written FOIL policy, which was later found in the village code.Ocean Beach, Saltaire, Brookhaven, Islip and Babylon declined to comment on their grades.