Peekskill City School District, Beacon City School District, Chester School District, Village of Spring Valley, Town of Deerpark Sued for Violating FOIL, Refusing to Show Spending
PRESS RELEASE – In front of the Westchester County Courthouse today, Reclaim New York (Reclaim) announced the filing of Article 78 litigation against five major government entities from across the lower Hudson Valley who denied basic Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for expenditure information – which they’re legally required to maintain, and make public.
The suit charges that Beacon City School District in Dutchess County, Peekskill City School District in Westchester County, the Village of Spring Valley in Rockland County, as well as the Town of Deerpark, and Chester Union Free School District in Orange County, all violated the state’s transparency law by refusing to show residents how their tax dollars are spent.
“New York’s systemic corruption shatters trust in government. Hudson Valley residents need to demand better, and that starts with seeing how their money is being spent,” said Reclaim New York Executive Director Brandon Muir. “Governments that try to keep spending in the shadows, and duck the light of transparency will be held accountable. That starts with enforcement and grows stronger when citizens demand oversight.”
Reclaim sent 246 records requests for FY2014 checkbooks to every County, City, Town, Village, and School District government in the Hudson Valley (including Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester counties).
The organization received complete expenditure records from 203 local governments, who complied with the FOIL request. These records are now online, and searchable, in the New York Transparency Project’s Local Government Spending Database – a first for New York State.
A total of 10 local governments denied the requests unlawfully. They either responded with an outright denial or refused to reply at all. In addition to the five entities being sued, the bad actors include: The City of Poughkeepsie, Washingtonville Central School District, the Village of South Blooming Grove, the Village of Croton-on-Hudson, the Village of Montebello.
“In the end, 83 percent of lower Hudson Valley governments completed this request on time. That fact shows how inexcusable it is for public officials in any locality to hide how they spend taxpayer money,” Muir stated.
Additional government entities are in the process of appealing, have remained in communication as they attempt to complete the records request, or can only provide documents through paper copies.
“It’s 2016, governments with million-dollar-plus budgets should not be relying on paper to keep records generated during this century,” said Muir. “They can also use their lack of technology as an excuse to dodge transparency, forcing residents to sometimes pay thousands of dollars to get access to information they are owed under the law.”
Peekskill School District – Westchester County
Peekskill Schools returned incomplete documents in a delayed response to Reclaim’s request. Their file did not include check numbers, which are key to tracking expenses when citizens review a document. The Committee on Open Government has made it clear that check numbers are subject to FOIL. Reclaim has already successfully litigated on this issue.
Village of Spring Valley – Rockland County
Spring Valley acknowledged receipt of the request, but never returned the requested documents and ignored an appeal.
Beacon City School District – Dutchess County
Beacon City Schools never formally responded. Despite multiple calls from Reclaim, which went beyond the legal requirements for making a request, Beacon City Schools never sent the documents.
Town of Deerpark – Orange County
Deerpark simply never responded to Reclaim’s initial request. They waited until after an appeal was filed to reply at all, claiming that they don’t even maintain the spending records, “in its regular course of business”.
Either they are violating state law by not maintaining records of their expenditures, or they are violating state law by wrongfully interpreting FOIL.
Chester Union Free School District – Orange County
Chester School District failed to acknowledge they kept expenditure records that state law requires them to maintain, and provide under FOIL. They then refused to respond to a formal appeal.
This is the third overall round of litigation filed by Reclaim New York. This summer, the organization sued six Long Island localities that violated FOIL. The organization has won four of those cases, either through a judge’s decision, or because entities settled by providing documents and agreeing to pay legal fees (the remaining two cases are ongoing).
“Hudson Valley residents deserve proactive transparency, and we’re here to make sure they get it,” said Muir. “While it’s encouraging to see many governments in the region comply with our records request, we still have more work to do to ensure every elected official understands that transparency isn’t a hope. It’s the law.”
Muir concluded, “This is the big first step toward rooting out the culture of corruption infecting our state. Once Hudson Valley residents join the team, we’ll be well on our way to creating the citizen oversight that can truly change our state’s future for the better.”