Court orders release of information on publicy funded senate mailings
NEW YORK — The state’s high court ruled in early December that the state senate must make public information about the publicly funded mailings of a Senator.
In September 1992 Burton Weston, a friend of state Senatorial candidate Mike Siris, asked for the number of newsletters, bulk- rate mailings and first-class mailings sent by incumbent Sen. Michael Tully (R-Nassau County) for 1991 and 1992 and for the total costs of mailings by Tully either as Senator or as a committee chairman.
The Secretary of the Senate said that New York’s Freedom of Information Law did not require him to release the records. The Senate Majority Counsel sustained the denial, saying that the requested information was not specifically listed for disclosure under the Public Officers Law or the Senate’s rules relating to public inspection of legislative records, rules designed to implement the FOI Law as it applied to the legislature.
After Siris lost the election, Weston and Siris sued for the records in the Supreme Court in Albany. The trial judge directed the senate to provide the information based on the presumption underlying the Freedom of Information Law that the records of government should be accessible to the public.
The Senate secretary appealed to the mid-level appellate court in Brooklyn and in February, 1994, that court reversed, concluding that only specific categories of legislative records delineated as open in the Public Officers Law were subject to the openness requirements of the FOI Law.
Weston appealed to the State of New York Court of Appeals in Albany. The high court ruled that although the FOI Law does not define the legislature as an “agency,” which must disclose any records not specifically exempt, the legislature is still required by the act to disclose basic statistical or factual tabulations that could lead to decisionmaking.
“Factual tabulations” maintained on governmental expenses are the basis of budget decisions, such as amounts to be appropriated for postage and printing.
The court noted that the FOI Law resulted from a desire to increase the accountability of the government to its citizens and said it would interpret the statute liberally to implement those purposes, as is its practice with the FOI Law.
The court said copies of newsletters and information on targeted mailings would not be factual tabulations and so would not have to be disclosed under the FOI Law.
(Weston v. Sloan, Requesters’ counsel: Michael Siris, Manhesset)