Board of Elections fail transparency test

A watchdog group sent FOI requests to some 20 boards to test whether they're following the law. Many failed.

When a good government group decided to test whether county election boards comply with the state’s open government laws, the first hurdle was getting someone – anyone – at those boards to answer an email or a phone call.

It wasn’t easy.

Last summer the New York Coalition for Open Government — a group that tracks government agencies’ compliance with freedom of information and open meetings laws — emailed 17 county election boards across the state to ask how often commissioners held meetings, whether those meetings were publicized, and whether meeting agendas and meetings were posted online. In many cases they followed up with phone calls.

Eleven of the 17 boards — including those in Erie and Niagara counties — didn’t bother to reply. 

Of the six who did, only one reported that it publicized upcoming meetings and posted agendas online. The other five said their election commissioners met regularly, as required by law, but did not invite the public or publish meeting agendas and minutes.

An Oswego County election commissioner “seemed flabbergasted by the questions,” the coalition reported earlier this week. 

“[The commissioner] did not understand what the board would meet about, what actions they would take publicly or privately, or what minutes would be logged,” according to the coalition’s report.

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The coalition followed up with a formal Freedom of Information Law request, adding two more counties, for a total of 19 election boards. Just five acknowledged the FOIL request in writing within five days, as required by law. Four more eventually responded, but after the five-day deadline.

“Amazingly, 10 election boards just never acknowledged our FOIL request,” said Paul Wolf, a Buffalo-area attorney who is the coalition’s founder and executive director.

So, the coalition sent a second FOIL request a month later. That one didn’t fare much better. 

In the end, just 10 of the 19 boards — Erie County’s among them — provided the coalition with agendas and minutes of meetings. The Niagara County Board of Elections was never heard from.

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“A pretty pitiful success rate,” Wolf said, noting that one board only responded a week ago, almost six months after the fact. State law gives public agencies up to 20 business days to fulfill FOIL requests.

Among the report’s conclusions: The state should create a body that has the authority, the resources and the political independence to monitor and enforce transparency laws, leveling penalties when agencies persistently violate them.

“Frankly, we’re getting tired of releasing report after report of noncompliance with the law,” Wolf said.

Read the full report here.