Leading off today:
"What we've got here is failure to communicate."
So said Strother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke" in 1967. If only he knew how right he'd still be close to half a century later in an entirely different context.
This is the story of two episodes -- one from late last fall and another from this past weekend -- that illustrate some of the challenges faced when reporters pursue facts that can make or break stories.
In neither case was I able to get all the way to the bottom of the story. But don't feel sorry for me, because both episodes were educational and I was able to dig deep enough to come away satisified that I had sufficient material to work with. One reminded me that the Freedom of Information Law is more or less useless when public employees take care to not leave much of a paper trail behind. And the other reminded me that people who are not legally accountable to the general public aren't going to be forthcoming with information under the best of circumstances, never mind when someone focuses the spotlight on a eyebrow-raising decision.
They have the advantage of replying to questions with "no comment" or not responding at all. And I have the advantage with being able to proceed with reporting a story accurately even if not (yet) completely.
So, here we go:
FOIL is a misnomer: In March of each year, a lot of newspapers around the state make a big deal -- rightfully so -- about their recent efforts to obtain access to public records via the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), one of the tools that in theory provides reporters and the general public with a set of checks and balances. Under the law, government entities have to be forthcoming with an assortment of documents that anyone can request via a simple bit of paperwork.
Often times the information being sought is financial. Reporters want to know how much an agency is spending on overtime or perhaps are chasing down a tip about money being wasted on frivolous items. Equally likely are instances of average citizens looking for insight copies of planning board minutes that don't exist online or county health department inspection reports for a restaurant.
The FOIL process is fairly simple: Submit the request and the government agency has 20 business days to fulfill it or give you a reason for rejecting it, at which point an appeals process can be initiated.
Not surprisingly, there's a fair amount of material that's off limits. You're not going to get the Pentagon to turn over much of anything even remotely related to national defense. And though you can usually get access to overtime pay records for a police officer or the mayor's bodyguards, you won't get to view medical records explaining why they spent three months on sick leave.
The second-worst dead end someone can run into with the FOIL request is a response that says there are no records pertaining to the request. The worst dead end, though, comes in the form of a response containing useless records or no records, which is largely what happened to me in November.
It was a few days before Thanksgiving when I sent FOIL requests to seven school districts in Monroe County. The inspiration for the request was simple: Superintendents from 18 local districts had sent a document to Section 5 and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association imploring them to ban private schools from postseason competition. From the moment that the Democrat and Chronicle disclosed the existence of the letter it was the hot topic in and around Rochester, even chewing up blocks of time on radio talk shows normally fixated on the Buffalo Bills or gossipy chatter inspired by the local police blotter.
My request to seven local districts sought copies of communications the superintendents had with school board members and/or the athletic director on the subject of private schools competing in Section 5 athletics. It stands to reason that the superintendent would want input from the AD or guidance from the school board before signing a letter that said "throw the rascals out," right?