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Hochul's transparency plans seek to accelerate FOIL requests – Times Union

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 17: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during the 2022 New York State Democratic Convention at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel on February 17, 2022 in New York City.
Hochul’s transparency plans aim to streamline Freedom of Information Law requests, 
ALBANY — Earlier this month, Gov. Kathy Hochul introduced plans to reform the way that state agencies respond to Freedom of Information Law requests by developing a system to expedite the completion of inquiries for public records.  
The initiative is also requiring agencies to identify and publicly post frequently requested documents, preventing the need for the public to file FOIL requests for those records.
At the start of her tenure, Hochul stressed her determination to increase government transparency after a decade under former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration, which had been notorious for its lack of access, obfuscation and cover-ups.
Hochul also has done away with a process that under Cuomo had required certain Freedom of Information Law requests, especially those submitted by news organizations, to be forwarded to the Executive Chamber for review; that process would further delay release of records.
Another breakthrough occurred during her first week as governor when her administration added 12,000 more COVID-19 deaths to a state database that hadn’t been previously disclosed by Cuomo’s office.
At the same time, the governor has received mixed reactions for her handling of nursing home data, developmental plans and her position on legislation that would make it easier for law enforcement agencies to withhold records and body camera footage pending an ongoing investigation, according to published reports. 
And while many Freedom of Information Law requests are still languishing under Hochul’s administration, there also have been fundamental shifts in public access at some agencies. The office of state Inspector General Lucy Lang, for example, has begun posting long-secret letters and reports that were drafted by the watchdog agency under Cuomo’s administration but had never been made public.
Lang, after Hochul appointed her to the position in November, had pledged to make that office more transparent and independent — and she said that investigative reports would no longer be sent to the executive chamber for editing.
The bill that would require law enforcement agencies to withhold records that are part of an ongoing investigation is currently on the governor’s desk. 
Yet, the announcement about expediting FOIL requests and transparency across state agencies also indicates the governor is following through on the pledges she made last year after being sworn in as governor following Cuomo’s resignation. 
“On my first day in office, I pledged to turn the page on the old ways of Albany and restore New Yorkers’ faith in their government,” the governor said in a statement last week. “We’re taking meaningful action to streamline the process to access public records, so journalists and members of the public can more easily access information to which they are entitled. 
“While there’s always more to do, I’m proud of the steps my administration has taken to increase transparency and accountability in New York state government.”
The governor has directed the state Office of Information Technology and Services to employ a software platform that will improve the state’s process for receiving, processing and responding to FOIL requests, according to a press release. A contract is expected to be finalized soon. 
The statement did not include a timeline that the state would attempt to meet in response to the inquiries. It did note that more than 400 records requests have been processed and completed by the Executive Chamber since Hochul became governor. 
In March, Reinvent Albany, a government accountability group, released a report examining the transparency plans of state agencies, public authorities and commissions, which Hochul had directed them to produce in September. 
It found that only 53 percent of agencies had information regarding the application of their initiatives or deadlines on when they’d be put to use. Some had released incomplete versions of the plans without all of the criteria set by the governor’s office.
In their report, the group stated, “Gov. Hochul’s agency transparency plans are a fundamental first step for assessing what agencies need to do to comply with the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), Open Data Executive Order and other mandates. 
“If done well, the plans will also show the governor and Legislature what else needs to be done to increase public access to state government information.”
The group listed recommendations that would further build on the work that’s already been done, including suggesting that the plans are completed annually and that Hochul’s administration publish the three top initiatives from each of the agencies submissions. 
Michelle Del Rey is a Capitol Bureau reporter for the Times Union and a member of the 2021-2023 Hearst Fellowship class. Before joining the Times Union, she worked as a freelance reporter, writing for national publications including the Guardian, BuzzFeed News and Kinfolk Magazine. In 2020, she graduated with honors from the University of Westminster in London, England, where she studied journalism. She is originally from Long Beach, California and speaks Spanish. You can reach her at Michelle.DelRey@hearst.com.

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