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Friday
Apr072017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - SMITHTOWN FOIL GRADE "B" ISLANDIA "F"

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

                                                By Karl Grossman

Smithtown: B

That’s the score of the Town of Smithtown in the extraordinary investigation conducted by the Press Club of Long Island (PCLI) on compliance by 195 governments and government agencies on Long Island with the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). 

“We emailed our request in two parts to the town clerk. The town scored points for emailing the minutes on the same day that we requested them and acknowledges the request for the other documents a day after it was made,”  stated the “Open Records Report Card” issued by PCLI.  “The town also got points for email its payroll list.”

The report card went on that Smithtown “lost a point for not providing a written FOIL policy, which we later found in the town code. It got a point in the helpfulness category for its speedy reply and having information on its website on how to file a FOIL request.”

FOIL, enacted in 1974, is the main state law seeking what these days is termed “transparency” in government. It’s a state version of the U.S Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which was signed into law in 1966. Counties, cities, towns, villages, among other governmental entities are legally considered “creatures” of a state and must abide by the Freedom of Information statute in that state. The probe of how governments and government agencies on Long Island are following FOIL was conducted by journalist Tim Bolger, Freedom of Information chair for PCLI.


The average grade for Long Island governments and agencies was a C. Suffolk County government received a C+ in the investigation.

As for villages in the Town of Smithtown, Nissequogue received a B and the Village of the Branch a D.

Said the report card regarding Nissequogue: “Three business days after we emailed out request to the village, it scored points when the clerk emailed its payroll list and board meeting minutes. It lost a point for not maintaining a subject matter listing….In the helpfulness category, it got a point for its speedy reply and sending the board meeting agendas that it’s not required to maintain but got no points for not having information on its website on how to file a FOIL request.”

There was a follow-up by PCLI asking for comments by all governments and government agencies on their ratings. Nissequogue Village Clerk Maryjane Kenney said: “Hopefully, this information will help in raising our score.”  

As for the Village of The Branch, “Nine business days after we emailed our request to the village, its clerk wrote back to acknowledge it and note that the 17 pages of documents will cost $4.25. After we mailed the check, the village scored points for sending its payroll list and board meeting minutes,” said the report card. “It got a half point for partially emailing its response. It got a half point for its response time. It got a half point because we had to follow up once for missing documents in its initial reply. It lost a point for neither providing a written FOIL policy nor maintaining a subject matter listing. It got a point in the helpfulness category for having information on its website on how to file a FOIL request.”

Mayor Mark Delaney of The Branch was not happy with its grade: His comment: “If you or your organization is looking to grade municipalities on transparency then I would give yours an ‘F’ as we hold advertised public meetings regularly (which I have never seen you at), we have office hours where you can come and ask any question you like (again to my knowledge you have never availed yourself of that) and my cell phone number is on the website for anyone to use (I have never received a call from you that I am aware of). Utilizing FOIL requests instead of simply “showing up” is certainly within your rights but puts an unnecessary burden on a part time office staff that, like the rest of us in small village government, are largely volunteers. We would prefer to spend our time serving our residents and I think they would agree. I would argue that our residents enjoy a level of transparency that county and state government are simply incapable of.”

(The Town of Smithtown “did not respond to a request for comment on its grade,” said the report card.)

Receiving an F was a village just to the south of Smithtown—Islandia, in northern Islip Town. Said the report card: “After we emailed our request twice, sent a copy by mail and called, the village sent a letter indicating that we would receive a response in 20 days, but that deadline passed without an update. For that, the village lost a point for response time, lost another point because we had to follow up more than three times, and, because the lack of response was considered a denial, it lost another point because we had to file an appeal in which it neither provided a written denial nor identified its appeals officer….The village did not respond to a request for comment on its grade.”

On a personal note: I am very proud of this investigation by PCLI. In 1974, I led the founding of the press club, now one of the biggest chapters in the Society of Professional Journalists, and was its first president. I moved on this after reading an article about a reporter jailed for not divulging a source. I thought there was a need for the excellent journalists on Long Island to get together in the cause of freedom of the press and the media’s role to watchdog power. A sterling example of this is the FOIL investigation by PCLI.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.


Thursday
Mar302017

St. James Native Alexa DeAngelis Named Fulbright Scholar

 

Harbor Country Day School Alumna Alexa DeAngelis Named Fulbright Scholar

St. James native one of 11 Fulbright research scholars to study in Italy

Alexa DeAngelisSt. James, New York.  Alexa DeAngelis, a member of the 2008 graduating class of Harbor Country Day School and a graduate of St. Anthony’s High School and Georgetown University, has been granted a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study cancer research at Sapienza-Università di Roma in Rome, beginning in October 2017. 

As a biochemistry major at Georgetown, Alexa was a member of the chemistry club and of the Georgetown University Research Opportunities Program. She also minored in Italian, studied abroad in Florence and took courses in economics and mathematics, among other subjects. She graduated Cum Laude from Georgetown in May 2016. 

Alexa credits her time at Harbor Country Day, St. Anthony’s and Georgetown as instrumental to being awarded such an outstanding honor as the Fulbright grant: “Probably one of the biggest influences in my life and work ethic comes from Harbor’s motto, ‘Sine Labore Nihil’ – ‘Without work, nothing.’ I definitely had it taught to me at a young age that anything worth having requires hard work. I still reflect on that often, and it gives me motivation to put in the extra effort in everything I do.”

Alexa continues, “And my college experience was nothing short of incredible, in large part because of the environment at Georgetown. I learned just as much, if not more, from my friends as I did in my classes.” Alexa says her immersive college education perfectly suited her “wonderful problem of being interested in too many things.” 

Throughout her academic career, Alexa’s relentless spirit and ambition has extended far beyond her classwork. While a student at St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington, she participated in the Student Ambassador Program, the Friar Quest Research Program and served as co-editor of the school yearbook, among her many other extracurricular activities. She also was a member of the National Honor Society, Math Honor Society and French Honor Society. Alexa was also actively involved with Relay For Life, an American Cancer Society program, for several years, even serving on its executive board for three years while at Georgetown. A current research technician at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Alexa is looking forward to using the Fulbright grant to further explore the area of cancer research in Rome.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Alexa and of everything she has achieved since she graduated from Harbor,” said Harbor Country Day School Head of School, John Cissel. “When she was a student here, she never stopped asking questions and exploring possibilities. I’m not at all surprised to see that she’s reached such a high level of success at this point in her life. I’m quite sure that this is just the beginning of even greater accomplishments for Alexa.”

As a Fulbright recipient, Alexa joins a prestigious group of awardees, including actor John Lithgow, composer Philip Glass, opera singer Renee Fleming and economist Joseph Stiglitz. Since the United States Congress created the Fulbright Program in 1946, more than 360,000 individuals from around the world have participated in the program. Roughly 8,000 grants are awarded each year, involving more than 160 countries worldwide. 

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide. The student program currently awards nearly 2,000 grants annually in all fields of study. Alexa received one of only 11 grants given out this year in the “research” category for Italy.

 

 

Thursday
Mar302017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Access To Information Important To Free Society

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

The Press Club of Long Island (PCLI) has conducted an unprecedented investigation into compliance by 195 governments and government agencies on Long Island with the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
            FOIL, enacted in 1974, is the key state law seeking what these days is widely called “transparency” in government. It’s a state version of the U.S Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law on, meaningfully, the Fourth of July, Independence Day, 1966.   

FOIL declares that “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government. As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible. The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society.”

Counties, cities, towns, villages, among other governmental entities are considered “creatures” of a state, so they must abide by the Freedom of Information statute in that state.
            The investigation into how governments and government agencies on Long Island are following FOIL was conducted by journalist Tim Bolger, Freedom of Information chair for PCLI.
            It is a very mixed picture. PCLI has issued an “Open Records Report Card” of its findings available in full online at http://www.pcli.org/open-records-report-card/
            Some governments and agencies were so good in compliance with FOIL that they received an A and some even an A+ by PCLI. Some were so bad that they received an F or D-.”
            The “Open Records Report Card” provides a detailed explanation in every case.
            Almost two-thirds failed to respond to requests for public records before the deadline. Records requested included payroll lists containing titles and salaries of employees, and copies of policies in responding to a records request, required under FOIL. 
             The average grade for Long Island governments and agencies was a C. 
          “”If the Long Island governments and agencies we tested were high school students with a cumulative grade of a C, they would not be getting into the college of their choice,” commented Mr. Bolger. “Many local officials are frequently quoted touting their commitment to transparency, but what we found is that actions don’t always match the buzzwords.”

PCLI is a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the largest journalism organization in the United States. The project was the biggest in the history of PCLI since it was founded in 1974. 

Mr. Bolger identified himself as a member of the press (although anyone can make use of FOIL and FOIA) and his requests were mostly made via email except in the cases of agencies for which no email address could be found. In those instances, he mailed requests.
               Mr. Bolger noted that PCLI stopped short of taking nonresponsive agencies to court to ask a judge to compel them to release public documents, which is the next step under FOIL when an appeal of a records request denial is itself denied. Under FOIL, a judge can award attorney’s fees in such cases to the plaintiffs, should the case be decided in their favor. Judges sometimes order non-compliant agency staffers to take FOIL “refresher” courses conducted by the state Committee on Open Government, which also regularly publishes advisory opinions on FOIL issues brought to its attention.
              Suffolk County government received a C+ in the investigation. It “scored better than Nassau” which received a D+.  Both the offices of the county clerk and the clerk of the Suffolk County Legislature received an A+.
              Regarding the county clerk, the “Open Records Report Card” stated that “it got a point for its response time” which is 20 days under FOIL. Similarly, for the legislature’s clerk: “five days after we emailed our request, we received a letter of acknowledgment via certified mail.”

On the other hand, the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council “designed to foster cooperation and improve decision-making across agencies within the county’s criminal justice system” received an F. The explanation: “We sent our request to the office, but got no reply. When we filed an appeal based on the lack of response…our appeal was denied on the grounds that we didn’t file it within 30 days…Then, after we refiled the request and the office again didn’t respond, we filed another appeal, this time within the deadline, but the appeal was denied a second time.””
               More on the PCLI’s “Open Records Report Card” next week including how towns and villages in Suffolk did.  

Thursday
Mar232017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Ending Bias And Discrimination In Suffolk County

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

The Suffolk County Human Rights Commission is among the most valuable of all Suffolk County agencies. Founded in 1963, its range in battling bias and discrimination has been vastly expanded through the decades while its staff, unfortunately, is now but a fraction of what it once was.

When I first covered the commission in the 1960s, its principal issue was racial discrimination. Through the decades, it has been tasked by successive Suffolk Legislatures and county executives to take on many other areas of bias. Its website states, “The primary objective of the Commission is to work toward the elimination of bias and discrimination in Suffolk County. This is achieved through public education and complaint investigation.” 

And what a list of issues it has been empowered to deal with!

Its website continues: “Call to speak with an investigator” (or people can file a complaint by email) “if you believe you have been treated unfairly because of your: Race, Sex, Gender, Disability, Military Status, Veteran Status, Arrest/Conviction Record, Religion/Creed, Lawful Source of Income, Status as a Victim of Domestic Violence, Age, Color, National Origin, Sexual Orientation, Pregnancy, Familial Status, Marital Status, Alienage or Citizenship Status.” And the agency “also accepts complaints of undue force or discriminatory treatment against the Suffolk County Police Department.”

The website adds: “There is no fee charged for our services! Call for confidential advice and assistance. Our professional staff will assess your allegations and your options will be explained.”

Dawn Lott (photo courtesy of Amistad Black Bar Association)Amazingly, the commission does its important work now with a full-time staff of just three investigators and an executive director, a Suffolk native, Dawn Lott, an attorney. Ms. Lott, a Smithtown resident originally from Wyandanch, is a graduate of Cornell University and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. This month marks her one-year anniversary at the commission. Further, there are 15 voluntary, unpaid commissioners, a diverse body chaired since 1992 by Rabbi Dr. Steven A. Moss of the B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale.

Its office is in the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. It will also interview complainants from the East End at the Evans K. Griffing Building in Riverhead and conduct hearings there, too. The hearings are presided over by administrative law judges. They are based on the county’s Human Rights Law and can result in orders that the discrimination be stopped and civil penalties be paid.

This month, the Suffolk Legislature unanimously passed a new “Local Law to Change the Standard for Admission of Evidence at Hearings before the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.”  Introduced at the request of the County Executive Steve Bellone, it notes the commission’s hearings have been modeled on the “rules of evidence applicable in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.” It says “easing the admission and use of relevant evidence from the type of restrictions applied in court to the more relaxed standard commonly applied at administrative hearings will facilitate the inquiry into whether an unlawful discriminatory practice occurred.”

Ms. Lott was at a Melville law firm (where she met her husband, also an attorney) and specialized in employment and civil rights law. In applying to head the Human Rights Commission, she considered it “a great opportunity. Being an employment and civil rights attorney, I felt I could do more in the area of discrimination.”  Moreover, it would be “nice” to work for the county “I’ve lived in.”

Discrimination is not a rarity in Suffolk County. “It is widespread,” said Ms. Lott, two-term past president of the Amistad Black Bar Association of Long Island. And discrimination in “employment has been ranked Number One” in annual reports of the commission for years. This discrimination often involves race and gender with a person not hired or demoted or fired. “Since 1996, it still is the highest category of complaints,” she said.

The Suffolk commission has also, historically, gotten involved in many burning social issues. Indeed, last month, it held a meeting at which recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, begun under President Obama, spoke along with community and religious leaders. If accepted into DACA, undocumented youth who arrived in the U.S. as children can register with the Department of Homeland Security and receive temporary work authorization and protection from deportation. This “has enabled qualifying students to attend college, work, pursue careers,” said the resolution passed by the commission unanimously. It asked the new national administration “to continue and expand DACA protections as a just and humane action.” The commission also unanimously passed a resolution supporting “the LGBTQ community” urging the administration “to reinstate all bathroom protections for transgender students.” And it unanimously passed, too, a resolution decrying recent acts of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and declaring “that diversity is our strength.”

 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.


Thursday
Mar162017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Casino Gambling On LI 

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

Suffolk County suddenly has gotten a major gambling casino smack in middle of the county—indeed, there’s no missing the just-opened Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino along the Long Island Expressway. It had been the Islandia Marriott Long Island, at 10 stories with 227 rooms, a huge hotel for Suffolk. Islandia is just south of Smithtown in northern Islip Town. 

It was purchased by Delaware North which describes itself as a “global hospitality and food service company” and will be running it with the Suffolk County Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation. Jake’s 58 gets its name from the nearest LIE exit, 58, and the Jacobs family, owner of Buffalo-based Delaware North. 

It is a high-stake gamble for Suffolk OTB. As Newsday’s article was headlined last month, “Suffolk OTB counts on a casino in Islandia to counter bankruptcy.” Indeed, Suffolk OTB officials are hoping the casino will generate $2 billion in gross revenue a year. That would get Suffolk OTB out of bankruptcy which it first filed for in 2011. “Suffolk County OTB executives say Long Island’s first video lottery casino is the agency’s last ditch effort to emerge from bankruptcy and save itself—if the Islandia betting parlor can meet projected revenues,” Newsday reported.

Suffolk OTB—indeed gambling in general in the U.S.—has hit hard times in recent decades. Much of this has to do with what is termed the “casino-saturation problem.” In 1978, only Nevada and New Jersey had commercial casinos. Today, they are in 24 states—and also, gambling on the Internet has been growing.  

Atlantic City was for a time the gambling mecca of the Northeast. But now nearly every state in the region has casinos. As for Atlantic City, which had a dozen huge casinos, now that’s down to seven with the latest one closing last year, Trump Taj Mahal.

“Atlantic City losing to Walmart-style casinos in Pa.” headed a 2013 article in USA Today. “The year 2005 was a very good year for this casino resort,” the piece began. “The eight years since? Awful! The latest figures show gaming revenue has plunged 44%, to around $3 billion.” It went on, “Convenience gambling and regional competition are driving the demise. Casinos with fewer amenities—dismissed recently by a Tropicana casino executive…as ‘Walmarts with slot machines and a bar and a restaurant’—have opened near major population centers.”

Jake’s 58, meanwhile, is not exactly a traditional casino. It is limited to video slot machines—265 of them now and an expected 1,000 by this summer. They are electronic versions of traditional casino games. Suffolk OTB plans to ask for the state’s OK to add an additional 1,000. But this set-up might be fine for Long Islanders seeking to avoid a drive to Atlantic City or Connecticut to bet in their casinos, or a trip upstate.

How Suffolk County got a casino is an odd story. In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sought to “reform” the Long Island Power Authority and bring in a New Jersey-based company, PSEG, to be the main utility on the island.  But this was opposed by the island’s state legislators from both parties. According to sources in Albany, Mr. Cuomo pushed a deal, taken to legislators by his then top aide, former Deputy Suffolk County Executive Larry Schwartz. Under it, to aid Nassau and Suffolk’s financially-strapped county governments, they would get the governor’s go-ahead to set up facilities for video slot machines—in return for the lawmakers supporting his “reform” scheme. More than half then went for it.  Originally, Mr. Cuomo had sought to locate new casinos only in economically depressed areas upstate.

In the end, intense public opposition in Nassau County stopped the proposed casino there, but an arrangement was made under which Nassau would receive revenue from a video slot operation in Queens.

Suffolk OTB, in sharp decline, earlier had closed 10 of its 14 gambling locations and sold its Hauppauge headquarters. It faced strong resistance when it sought to site the video slot casino in Medford. Then the Islandia Marriott came on the market. Suffolk OTB officials say this was a top choice all along considering its central location and, unlike Medford, the construction of a new facility wasn’t needed. The hotel could be modified to become a casino.

Suffolk County government is, meanwhile, to receive at least $2 million in the first year, $3 million in the second and then $1 million for each of the next eight years.

The small village of Islandia, created in 1985, has been promised $47 million over 20 years by Delaware North, enough to cut village property taxes by about half for its 3,335 residents, says the village’s mayor, Allan M. Dorman, a big booster of the casino.

But there is a lawsuit pending brought by some area residents seeking to close the Islandia operation. It alleges the village’s approval was fraught with illegalities. They further complain the casino will lead to crime, increased traffic and lower property values.  

Opponents of state-sponsored gambling have also long charged that it hits low-wage earners the hardest, causing debt, broken families and other personal tragedies—that gambling is often addictive and government shouldn’t encourage it. Years ago I researched and wrote an article on the Gamblers Anonymous group. Members spoke of the thrill of gambling—as opposed to betting—the difference being, they explained, they couldn’t afford to lose the money when gambling and this danger caused a certain “high.” They spoke of losing jobs and relationships and becoming hooked on what became a compulsion. Gamblers Anonymous remains active on Long Island and with a new casino here can be expected to be yet more active. 

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine related: “A significant portion of casino revenue now comes from a small percentage of customers, most of them likely addicts, playing machines that are designed explicitly to lull them into a trancelike state that the industry refers to as ‘continuous gaming productivity.’”

 

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.