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Citizens deserve unfettered access to public information. There are few civic theorems more basic to democracy than that, which is why Gov. George Pataki should sign a bill now on his desk that will facilitate that flow of information.

The bill essentially closes a loophole that allows state and local officials to continually delay, and essentially deny, the public access to information. It would reform the state's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), which gives individuals and organizations the right to access state and local government documents. Specifically, it would speed up an often sluggish process in producing public records.

Too often, bureaucrats who are legally required to provide information flout the law by delaying tactics that render Freedom of Information statutes meaningless. Some egregious instances of delayed response by state and local government agencies involve stretches of months, sometimes years. The Associated Press' attempt to obtain records pertaining to some public school teachers who were giving students the answers to questions on the state's new standardized tests spanned a three-year period, beginning in 2000.

The standard set in the bill now before the governor calls for agency compliance within a time frame that must be "reasonable under the circumstances," which means the legislation takes into account situations when an agency cannot grant immediate access because of the complexity of the request. But those instances are few and far between.

In most cases, however, the legislation would require agencies to provide the information requested under FOIL within 20 business days. If the request requires significantly more time to honor, the agency must give a written explanation for why the 20-day deadline cannot be met and offer a concrete date for when the material will be supplied. The deadlines will make it easier for individuals and organizations to begin the appeals process to force release of information.

Unfortunately, this bill does not contain specific fines or jail time, provisions that might have made legislative approval impossible. That's too bad, because public officials who blatantly refuse to obey the law should feel some pain. However, individuals or organizations who are forced to go through the courts to get information they are entitled to can request that the judge award attorney's fees.

The public benefits most from this bill. It will prevent governments from ignoring the citizens they serve. Pataki should sign this bill.