Glens Falls Post-Star | February 7, 2018 | Don Lehman
Warren County is facing a legal challenge to its response to a Queensbury resident’s Freedom of Information requests, a challenge that comes as a Glens Falls lawyer is also embroiled in a dispute with the county over its response to information requests.
Travis Whitehead is appealing the denial of a lawsuit last year that sought an engineering report on a geothermal energy project at Warren County Municipal Center. County officials withheld the report despite an opinion from the state Committee on Open Government that it should be released.
“Only an ‘executive committee’ (of county supervisors) had access to that report the entire time the settlement with Siemens was being debated,” Whitehead wrote.
It was eventually released six weeks later, after negotiations that led to a settlement with project contractor Siemens Building Technologies were substantially complete. Supreme Court Justice Robert Muller later dismissed the lawsuit, pointing to the eventual release of the report.
Whitehead said there has been a pattern of county leaders wrongly denying information requests, even when the Committee on Open Government issues opinions advocating a release.
“The issue is whether or not an agency can delay disclosure indefinitely and then cover all sins by releasing the material after the issues have been decided,” Whitehead wrote.
Whitehead is seeking a ruling from the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court on the merits of the lawsuit, as well as reimbursement for a few hundred dollars in court costs.
He is being represented by attorney Cameron MacDonald of the Government Justice Center. The center is an Albany-based “independent, not-for-profit legal center that provides pro bono representation and legal services to protect the rights of New Yorkers in the face of improper action by state or local governments,” according to its website.
Whitehead’s court challenge comes as Glens Falls lawyer John Aspland has claimed that county leaders have improperly kept documents from him related to the county’s search last fall for a new county attorney. Aspland’s firm had proposed privatizing the county attorney position.
His initial requests for emails and text messages related to the search were denied, despite a favorable opinion from Committee on Open Government Director Robert Freeman.
“It seems that the chairman (of the county board) may be unfamiliar with the scope of the Freedom of Information Law,” Freeman wrote in an email to Aspland, which was provided to The Post-Star.
Aspland said he filed appeals that have been mostly ignored for more than a month, despite emails to board Chairman Ronald Conover and other county officials to follow up on the status of the appeals. He said he got a response to just one, seeking the resume of county Attorney Mary Kissane.
Aspland called the handling of the requests “disheartening.”
“I have asked several times that the chairman and the county attorney and the (county) special counsel provide what the law allows me to have, yet nothing,” he wrote.
Conover said the requests were referred to the county attorney’s office.
“I’m confident the county attorney is well aware of the FOIL requirements,” Conover said.
County Attorney Mary Kissane said the county has responded to Aspland’s requests and appeals as required.
Glens Falls 3rd Ward Supervisor Claudia Braymer, who is an attorney, said she has also had concerns about how the county responds to FOIL requests, after hearing of Aspland’s travails. She said she plans to ask that the county Board of Supervisors Legislative & Rules Committee look at the county’s FOIL policies.