News 4 Investigates: Getting public records can be a long process

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Using New York State’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain public records is a valuable tool for journalists.

But the law does not apply only to journalists and gives anyone the ability to seek public records.

As the Q & A information details below, an agency should at least acknowledge a request within five business days and can take an additional 20 business days to produce the information.

But, as News 4 Investigates has experienced with the state Thruway Authority, state agencies often fail to meet those time limits and drag out requests for public information.

In this case, News 4 filed its request on December 26. The Thruway Authority initially said it would respond by April 1. Since then there have been monthly delays. The new date to respond is July 24.

News 4 is asking for details on how much the Authority’s board and executives spent on expenses and what those expenses were for the three years ending in 2013.

Here’s some additional information on the FOIL law and how to use it from the New York State Committee on Open Records where additional information can be found.

Who is subject to the New York State Freedom of Information Law?
Every New York State or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function is subject to the Law. Each of those governmental entities is an “agency.” The courts are outside its coverage but often must disclose records under other provisions of law. The State Legislature is covered by the Freedom of Information Law, but is treated differently from agencies generally. Private corporations or companies are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

How do I make a request?
Simply write your request and mail it or email to the “records access officer” at the agency where the records are maintained.

What records are available?
All records are available, unless an exception permits an agency to deny access. Most of the exceptions are based upon common sense and the potential for harm that would arise by means of disclosure. If disclosure of records would be damaging to an individual or preclude a government agency from carrying out its duties, it is likely that some aspects of the records may be withheld.

How long must I wait to get access to records?
When an agency receives a request, §89(3)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law states that it has five business days to grant or deny access in whole or in part, or if more time is needed, to acknowledge the receipt of the request in writing and indicate an approximate date by which the agency will respond to the request, usually not more than 20 additional business days. See Explanation of Time Limits for Responding to a Request.

What happens if an agency fails to respond within five business days of receipt of my request?

A failure to comply with any of the time limitations imposed by law would constitute a denial of a request that may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states that an appeal must be made within thirty days of the denial. The appeal should be made to the person designated by the agency to determine appeals or the chief executive or governing body of the agency.

What happens if an agency fails to respond to my appeal?
The agency is required to respond to the appeal within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal by granting access to the records or fully explaining the reasons for further denial in writing. If a determination on the appeal is not rendered within ten business days, the failure to do so constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, you may initiate a proceeding to challenge the denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.

Do I have to give a reason why I want public records?

No. A person requesting records cannot be required to provide a reason or indicate the intended use of the record might be. The only instance in which the purpose of a request is relevant is when the request is for a list of names and residence addresses. Only in that instance is the agency authorized to seek certification that the list will not be used for solicitation or fund-raising purposes; if it is determined that a list will be used for those purposes, an agency can deny access.

I asked a local government official a question about his office, but he didn’t answer. What can I do to make him answer?

The Freedom of Information Law pertains to records; it is not intended to be used as a vehicle for cross examining government officials or employees. Therefore, an agency is not required to answer questions or to create a new record in response to questions. While agency staff may answer questions, and many do, that service is separate from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law, which deals with requests for existing records. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review. Note: Comments containing links are not allowed.

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