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As important as open meetings are, anyone who’s ever had a reason to pay close attention to what the government is doing knows how important it is to be able to access documents and information.

I hope you won’t be too shocked to learn you can’t always count on straight talk from government officials to get the facts about what’s happening — or not happening.

Where would we be without the Freedom of Information Law? That’s the law — shorthand: FOIL — that requires government officials to provide access to public records. Whether they like it or not. And the things you can find out by actually being able to go through government files!

Most government offices have a records access form you can use to request documents or files, but use of the form is not required. A simple email will do. Just describe the document or file you want to review or obtain a copy of and send it to the designated records access officer. There are some documents that can’t be accessed by the public for various reasons, as spelled out in the state Freedom of Information Law and the federal Freedom of Information Act.  But most documents are accessible, as they should be. 

Nevertheless, many government officials — especially the lawyers — behave as if national security is at stake and they work for the CIA. 

Governments don’t necessarily make it easy to find out who the records access officer is or how to email them. Government websites should all have prominent links to the appropriate person — even an online form to fill out. This is the 21st century after all.

Alas, many government websites seem to be stuck in the 1990s.

I mean, there’s no reason why a lot of records can’t simply be posted online to begin with — rather than forcing citizens to submit FOIL requests in order to access.

Ideally, governments should be able to scan and post online things like applications for special permits, variances, subdivisions and site plans — together with all pertinent reports, including all environmental review documents. That would allow citizens to be truly informed about pending matters and form opinions according.

Instead, if you want to see a file, you have to submit a FOIL request and wait for a response. And the response can be limited to: “We’ll let you know in a couple of weeks.”

Southold Town posts most of its pertinent land use files to a website: site plan and subdivision applications and the like. It’s not very easy to navigate, but the information and documents are there. Southold is a small town with a small staff. If Southold can accomplish this, Riverhead and other towns should be able to as well.

Governments should have their various policies posted in an online library: the ethics policy, purchasing policy, public meeting and hearing procedures, etc. As it stands, you really have to search and dig to find them — generally attached to the resolutions adopting them.

All budgets, financial reports, audits and auditor correspondence, collective bargaining agreements, etc. should be posted online and easily accessible.

Public officials’ disclosure statements — which are required by the ethics code— should also be posted online.

And PDFs of documents posted online should be created so that they’re searchable documents — not just images that can’t be searched.

All of this is really just making government user-friendly, when you come right down to it. Citizens don’t deserve any less.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.