Town of Geneseo needs more sunshine

By Bill Lofquist and Corrin Strong

As this newspaper noted in last week's editorial, March 16- 22 will be Sunshine Week, a week of national recognition of the importance of Open Government. For those of us on the front lines of the battle to stop sprawl in the Town of Geneseo, however, it has become clear that we still have some work to do to bring our local government in line with the spirit of the New York State Freedom of Information Law.

To begin with, it needs to be understood that although FOIL is a four-letter acronym, it is not a dirty word. That citizens have a right to inspect the public documents generated by their representatives is a fundamental principle upon which our government is based. In fact, it is one of our most important bulwarks against corruption and the arrogance of power.

In the last year, our organization, Please Don't Destroy Geneseo, has been criticized in some quarters for what some have viewed as our over-zealous pursuit of public documents in this matter. We regret that our need to file repeated FOIL requests has represented a burden on the town's clerical staff, however, there is a better way.

We have repeatedly requested that the Town Planning Board adopt a policy to automatically make all public documents in this matter available without the need to play this cat and mouse game. Thus far, the Board has not even acknowledged receipt of this request, let alone considered its merits.The result is the appearance that the leadership of the board prefers to maintain a culture of secrecy by following the letter rather than the spirit of the Freedom of Information Law.

For example, at the Planning Board meeting of Feb. 11, representatives of the town's engineer's, MRB Group, promised the board that they would have a memo prepared “by the end of the week” in response to the draft Final Environmental Impact Statement submitted by Newman Development. Such communications between representatives of the town and an applicant are indisputably public, and yet, a month later, and despite repeated FOIL requests, we have not been able to obtain a copy of this important memo.

Now some may wonder why we need to file multiple requests for the same document. Unfortunately, the law does not allow us to FOIL prospectively. In other words, we can not simply make a FOIL request that says, “Please give us the memo from MRB to Newman when it becomes available.” Instead we must request all communication between MRB and Newman up to the date of our request.

The town is then given a series of deadlines for responding to our request. First, they can simply send a letter within 5 business days acknowledging our request. Then, they have an additional business 20 days in which to try to locate the requested record. During this period, however, we remain in the dark. No one has had the courtesy to tell us whether or not the document we are seeking actually exists.

On the chance that the memo was not actually delivered prior to our first request, we were forced to file a second request a few weeks later. Realizing that the town will probably take the maximum amount of time on each request before disclosing the record, we can not afford to wait until we get a final answer to our first request if we want to get the information while it is still timely.

Also troubling is the evidence that the town's recent decisions about Newman's application are being made entirely by the Town Planning Board's staff. Over the course of the last two Town Planning Board meetings, there has been little public discussion of problems with Newman's FEIS, yet the town's agents have apparently communicated major concerns to Newman. This creates the appearance that important decisions in this matter are being made without Board input.

It is understandable that certain technical matters might be delegated to specialized staff. To turn major decisions on policy matters over to people who are not officers of the town, without monitoring what they are doing, however, seems to conflict with the lead agency's obligation under SEQR to take an independent "hard look" at the issues. In the present case, it appears that not only do we not have public oversight of what our planning board is doing, we don't even have board oversight. Regardless of what side of the Lowe's issue you may be on, this is something that should be of concern to all, especially during Sunshine Week!