Rochester City Council Puts Law Department in Charge of Public Records Requests

by DARIEN LAMEN and LAURA SMITH

ROCHESTER NY--Rochester City Council voted Tuesday to put the City’s Law Department fully in charge of processing public records requests submitted under the state's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).


This comes on the heels of a damning report on the City’s handling of the Daniel Prude incident which found Tim Curtin, the head of the Law Department, suppressed the release of bodyworn camera footage requested under FOIL without a factual or legal basis.


Under the City's newly-approved FOIL system, initial decisions on whether to grant a request for public records will be made by attorneys in the Law Department, rather than by administrators in the Communications Department. Appeals of those decisions will continue to be managed by Curtin and his staff.


The City Administration says the change is necessary due to a greater volume of public records requests. The existing FOIL system was designed to handle around 2000 requests a year, the administration says, but they are now receiving over 6600 requests a year.


The newly-passed legislation also adds paralegal staff to assist with processing requests, which will be entered into the same system the Law Department uses to manage claims and lawsuits against the City.


City Council approved the change in an 8 to 1 vote Tuesday, with Councilmember Mary Lupien casting the lone vote against. Lupien expressed concern over the proposal earlier this month, citing the Law Department’s suppression of public information in the Daniel Prude case.


Police Accountability Board Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds said the decision to hire additional paralegals to help process FOIL requests was “good news.” But he echoed Councilmember Lupien’s concerns.


“Shifting responsibility for FOIL from Communications to the Law Department could seem like it is professionalizing the system,” Dwyer Reynolds said. “But transferring all these powers to a department that is led by someone who has been fighting transparency and has been harshly criticized for not being driven by transparency is not a real solution to this problem.”


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DARIEN LAMEN is news director/producer for Reclaiming the Narrative. LAURA SMITH is a volunteer news reporter for Reclaiming the Narrative. They can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com.