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FOI law fixes well done Albany's move to close loophole in statute worth praise and thanks

We would hate to let the year expire without acknowledging that the New York State Legislature, chronically identified as the nation's most dysfunctional, did at least one thing (two if you count the mandated but seldom accomplished on-time budget) in 2005 to serve residents. It fixed a harmful flaw in the Freedom of Information law.

The law provides public access to government data, and in a state whose legislators actively seek to insulate and even hide themselves from public accountability, the FOI law has been an anomaly. Even before this year's repair, it was one of the nation's best, with the statutes specifically acknowledging that "the government's business is the people's business."

Even still, a procedural glitch in the law created an unacceptable obstacle to its users. While the law provided mechanisms to appeal denials, the appeal could not be filed until the agency in question issued a written denial. Thus, a request could be thwarted by refusing to produce paperwork.

The new law presumes a written denial to have been issued if the agency fails to meet the statute's deadlines, thereby clearing the way for appeal. The concept is called "constructive denial," and it also applies to appeals, allowing a petitioner to take a denial to court if an appeals officer misses deadlines.

What the Legislature unfortunately failed to do was to apply this standard to FOI law requests directed at itself. In practice, that may not matter too much, since the New York Newspaper Publishers Association reports few problems with gaining access to legislative documents.

But it does happen. The legislative exemption prevents The Buffalo News from ascertaining if the campaign director for Mayor-elect Byron W. Brown truly had enough comp time as a Senate aide to continue drawing a state check. Nonetheless, this was a valuable change by the Legislature and Gov. George E. Pataki, who signed the bill into law. We hope lawmakers will extend the law's provisions to the Senate and Assembly, but even with that omission, lawmakers did right by New Yorkers.

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