We may never know who made the FOIL request received by Southampton Village on January 17 [“Mystery FOIL Request Has People Wondering At Southampton Village Hall: Who Filed It, And Why?” 27east.com, January 29], but if they did so to chill participation or unfairly embarrass others, they should be ashamed of themselves. FOIA and FOIL laws are intended to improve public confidence in government; wielding them as a cudgel does just the opposite and shouldn’t be repeated.
As a former compliance officer who made, responded to or reviewed hundreds of FOIL requests, I had hoped the Board of Trustees or its counsel would dispel some incorrect or misleading statements made about this FOIL request at its January 22 meeting, or, perhaps, its subsequent February 13 meeting. That did not happen, so I am writing with four clarifications that the public should know:
• Contrary to repeated statements at the January 21 meeting, the request was, in fact, time-stamped, probably twice: first by virtue of having been received via email (email logs serve as legally valid time stamps), and, second, probably by virtue of being printed and stamped into a physical file, as is routinely done. It is deeply frustrating that none of the village officials who could have dispelled this factual misstatement did so, and that its defamatory implications — perhaps unintentional — were allowed to stand.
• How the speaker received an unstamped copy on January 21 is an interesting question. The public deserves an explanation of who provided an unstamped copy to any individual, whether that was done pursuant to a FOIL request by the recipient or more “informally,” and if so why, as well as a clear statement of policy in this regard.
• The ominous allusion by one speaker to “total email accounts” of private citizens being accessed was unfortunate fear-mongering, whether it was intended to be or not: No member of the public should fear any such thing. FOIL requests may only be made to municipalities or municipal agencies for access to public records; your personal email and text accounts are 100 percent immune from search under FOIL.
• When a member of the public corresponds with a municipal official or employee regarding municipal matters, that correspondence becomes a public record the moment it is received. Such correspondence is FOIL-able, and the municipality may choose or be required to disclose it. There is no such thing as “private” correspondence with a municipal official or employee regarding municipal matters, even if the correspondence is sent to or from the municipal official/employee’s personal email or text account.
Whether more is ever learned about this incident or not, we should not allow misconceptions and misstatements of fact to cause inappropriate fear or mistrust.
Mr. Coburn is a member of the Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board in Southampton Village — Ed.
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