Two years ago Pat Ehrich knew virtually nothing about the state Freedom of Information Law and Open Meetings Law. But after nightly readings, research and a court case, she considers herself a bit more knowledgeable.
"I am not quite an expert, but I do understand how to write a FOIL, what agencies are required to provide, how long they have to provide it and what I can ask for," Ehrich said. "There is really a goldmine of information out there and once you read that, it is pretty simple."
Ehrich, co-founder of the Coalition for Sustainable Schools, said she was opposed to New Roots Charter School since it opened in fall 2009. She did not believe the school garnered as many students as was reported, Ehrich said, and she decided to get the data to prove it.
Her diligence and New Roots' initial unresponsiveness became an expensive lesson for the school. Over time, several requests were not delivered to Erich in the time required under FOIL and the cost of non-compliance became clear: a court ordered the school to attend training sessions conducted by the state Committee on Open Government and awarded Ehrich more than $20,000 in attorney's fees, she said.
"The message is it is very, very expensive to decide to violate FOIL if someone calls you out on it," Ehrich said. "I thought I had no other choice and I was right."
Ehrich's education on FOIL and open meetings law came from a variety of sources: the Committee on Open Government's website, Google searches on court cases, conversations with lawyers and opinions written by Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.
In January 2010, Ehrich said, it became apparent to her that New Roots was not going to hand over information she believed she had a right to see under the law. Aware it would be expensive and she might not win the case, Ehrich filed a suit against the school in June…
Ehrich's case claimed the school did not grant proper access to public records and excluded the public from board meetings not permitted to be closed under the law.
Madison County Supreme Court Justice Donald Cerio ruled that New Roots did not respond to FOIL requests in a timely fashion. Under FOIL, a written request for a public record must be acknowledged within five business days. The school failed to respond to the seven written requests from Ehrich dated April 29 within that time limit, according to court documents.
In addition, Cerio ruled that the school's board of trustees did not fully comply with open meetings law with respect to an executive session in April. As a result, the board of New Roots and its executive staff attended training sessions conducted by Freeman last week. It was the first such session ordered by a court in the state, Freeman said…
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ITHACA CHARTER SCHOOL LEARNS COST OF NON-COMPLIANCE WITH SUNSHINE LAWS - NEW ROOTS NOW WELL-VERSED IN FOIL; March 11, 2011; Ithaca Journal (NY)