The public’s right to know vs. Knox’s right to ‘No’

The New York State Freedom of Information Law — its sunshine law — states that “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.”

The Enterprise tries to keep the public informed on government actions or lack of action in the Albany County towns we cover. Often, our reporters file Freedom of Information Law requests — which in common parlance since the law was enacted in 1974 has become a verb: to FOIL.

Our Hilltown reporter, H. Rose Schneider, has recently run into problems getting information through two FOIL requests in the town of Knox.

She filed one on April 29, three days after an April  26 town board meeting. The meeting was hastily called, with notice just two-and-a-half hours before. Only three of the five board members were present — Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis and his two running mates, Karl Pritchard and Ken Saddlemire.

This is the same voting bloc that replaced three transfer-station workers on New Year’s Day — two of them illegally because, as Schneider discovered, they were protected under Civil Service Law.

The trio met to decide on an appeal to a FOIL request made by a citizen whose request had been denied. The three voted in unison to deny the appeal.

Schneider finally received an answer from her request from the Knox town clerk, Traci Schanz, who serves as the town’s FOIL officer, on May 21. The request was for video recorded at the transfer station on March 28. However, the name of the person making the request was redacted.

There should be no reason to withhold the name of the person making the FOIL request, according to Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

So now Schneider, trying to learn what went on at the transfer station that day, cannot contact the person who filed the original request to find out. Schneider will, in turn, file her own appeal in an attempt to find the information to which she, and the public at large, is entitled.

Who will be deciding on her appeal? Lefkaditis alone.

After the April appeal, the Knox Town Board voted, 4 to 1, to have the supervisor alone hear appeals as opposed to the entire town board, a move that a bipartisan town board had agreed on unanimously in 2016. Councilman Earl Barcomb cast the lone dissenting vote.

Schneider’s second FOIL request has to do with the blight along Bozenkill Road, involving several properties, with which the town has been wrestling for years. Schneider filed the request in April, after she accompanied long-time Knox Planning board member Robert Price on a tour of blighted properties. Nothing had improved; in fact, they were in worse shape than when we had last written about them and pictured them several years ago.

When Lefkaditis first started serving as Knox’s supervisor, in 2016, to his credit, he made controlling blight a priority. Until then, Knox law had allowed cleanup of only junked vehicles or debris.

Lefkaditis had asked the planning board to draft a law to deal with blight, which was eventually passed in July 2018, addressing vacant, neglected properties. But a law is not effective unless it is enforced, a role filled by the town’s building inspector and zoning administrator, Daniel Sherman.

Schneider’s FOIL request for records of citations of blighted properties was answered with the information that there were no such records. Schneider wanted to make sure this was true and also wanted to hear Sherman’s side of the story.

She visited Sherman’s office on three occasions during his limited hours at Knox Town Hall, from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday night — all to no avail. The first time, his assistant, Richard Loucks, was on hand but said only Sherman could answer her questions. The second time, Sherman was in his office but said questions must be emailed. Schneider complied, but got no response. The third time, only Loucks was available and again would not comment.

We don’t fault the FOIL officer, Schanz, in this; she can’t produce records that don’t exist. Neither could the former clerk and FOIL officer, Tara Murphy.

In 2017, Schneider had FOILed for Knox building permits over four years prior, which took over six months to get. “I just received the last of the … records from Dan Sherman,” Murphy had emailed in December 2017 for a request made that June.

Many of the building permits that Schneider received had blank spaces where the inspections should have been marked. In 2016, for example, Knox issued 28 building permits but only one of them had any marks on the checklist that accompanied materials submitted by applicants.

Schneider had made the 2017 FOIL request after a city of Albany auditor was told in response to his own request that there were no Knox inspection reports issued by Sherman during 2016, despite permits being issued. The Albany auditor had been concerned because it did not appear that the hours clocked in by Sherman for the city of Albany would allow him to carry out inspections in Knox.

Lefkaditis at the time said the problem was one of record-keeping rather than of inspections not being done. He said then, two years ago, that new policies and procedures to properly record inspections would be adopted.

So one of two things may explain the answer to the latest Enterprise FOIL request, that there are no records of citations: Either new policies aren’t being followed so record-keeping remains poor, or the law against blight isn’t being enforced.

In either case, Knox should address the problem. The law should be enforced for the very reasons Lefkaditis first cited in wanting it drafted: Blighted properties bring down land values for neighbors; children or other visitors could be attracted to the run-down structures and hurt, leaving the town liable; and the appearance reflects poorly on the town in general.

If, instead, the problem is record-keeping, that, too, is important to address. Inspections are essential for safety. One egregious example came to light in Knox in 2015, when a kindergartner was killed by his cousin, both of them living in a poorly-maintained trailer.

In the midst of his murder investigation, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said he found safety problems in the trailer. He said the wood stove was not adequately vented, and a large space heater, near clothing, appeared dangerous.

Apple said at the time he would call the town’s code-enforcement officer, stating, “I think there are serious deficiencies in that trailer that put people’s lives in jeopardy.” Afterward, the town inspected the trailer and found it not fit to live in.

Just before press time, Lefkaditis responded to some of Schneider’s questions about the blight law, saying he is excited about the new law but wants to be sure it is implemented properly. He wrote in an email, “...Passing a law, implementing it, and enforcing it are very different things. And that is what the Board is working to finalize.”

Lefkaditis notes that one owner of vacant property has already registered under the new law. He guesses it is a “technicality” that it didn’t show up in Schneider’s FOIL request. After nearly a year, we urge the board to act. Technicalities matter.

It’s important to do required inspections, to follow up, and make sure premises are safe, and to keep records of inspections and citations made. Public safety depends on it.

In this digital age, there should be no excuses for not keeping accurate records and making them readily available upon request. After all, as the Freedom of Information Law states, “The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government … government is the public’s business and ... the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government …”

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