As Public Advocate, he introduced two bills to get city agencies to release more information to the public. Last April, he released a report detailing the major flaws in the city's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request system. He led by example, posting the status of all FOIL requests to his office online. He even tried to resuscitate a budgetless and ignored commission to oversee the city's public information and transparency.
But he had no power. The two bills died in the Council. His report, good for a few headlines when he sat in a distant fourth in the Democratic field for mayor, didn't cause outrage. Not one city entity followed his lead on the FOIL tracker. And the commission he tried to bring back to life had one meeting and a short-lived website and has since returned to obscurity.
Now that he's mayor, power is not a problem. And transparency advocates and chronic FOILers want him to use it to follow through on his promise to bring the city's records request system into the 21st Century and usher in a new era of openness at City Hall.
To test how open the new era is, City Limits in late January sent FOIL requests to 10 city entities. The results were decidedly mixed.
In fairness, the administration is just a toddler trying to find its footing; de Blasio hasn't finished hiring top officials at major city agencies and he is clearly still settling into his role as the chief executive of a city of 8 million people.
But the very problems de Blasio saw in the Bloomberg administration's treatment of FOIL—a lack of acknowledgement that requests have been received, scant information about how to even make a request and steep delays in producing the required documents—are still an issue in the new administration.
Until pressed by this reporter, the mayor's office never acknowledged the FOIL City Limits sent to it. Of the other nine entities we FOILed, all acknowledged receipt of a request, but only three have been fulfilled after more than 40 business days. This sluggishness is what de Blasio exposed as public advocate and is something he can reform as mayor.
FOIL frustrations at the mayor's office
De Blasio's report from last year, "Breaking Through Bureaucracy: Evaluating Government Responsiveness to Information Requests in New York City," was a comprehensive study of how the city's 38 mayoral agencies responded to requests for information from the public.
The report revealed a flawed and inconsistent FOIL process in New York where too many requests take too long to fulfill and some vanish forever into the bottomless belly of bureaucracy. De Blasio chastised agencies for failing to post information on how to submit a request online. He judged agencies based on those factors and, borrowing from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's playbook, issued letter grades in a report card.
He offered recommendations on how to improve the system and used the report as an example of "Holding the Executive Branch Accountable for FOIL Compliance," which was a bullet point on his mayoral campaign website, in a section titled, "The de Blasio Record on Good Government."
De Blasio's 2013 report was harsh to those agencies that do not fulfill their legal obligation to at least acknowledge receipt of every request within five business days, as state Freedom of Information Law requires. In his study, de Blasio determined about 10 percent of requests to city agencies never received a response, something, he wrote at the time, that "undermines the spirit of the Freedom of Information Law."
Two months after City Limits filed its FOILs, the only entity that had not acknowledged a request was the mayor's office. The office eventually did acknowledge the request, but only after they were alerted to their lack of response by this reporter.
When asked about the missing FOIL in mid-March, de Blasio's office said they could not track down the request made by City Limits and claimed to have answered every request since he took office. According to the Office of the Counsel to the Mayor, the mayor's office acknowledged receipt of all 41 requests received between January 1 and March 14. The mayor's counsel who handles records requests was not appointed until the end of February, so that might explain the vanished request.
On March 24, the office finally acknowledged City Limits' request.
"Please be advised that due to a processing error, this request was not brought to the proper office’s attention until Friday, March 21, 2014. We apologize for this delay as we strive to process all FOIL requests in a timely manner," reads the letter.
De Blasio's report also determined about half of city agencies failed to post information on how to submit a request on their websites.
"The City doesn’t make it easy to even file a request," reads an introduction to the report.
But the mayor's office also does not have information on how to submit a FOIL request on its new website and does not accept requests through e-mail or an online form. Without any information online, this reporter called 3-1-1 in late January to ask.
"When you say Freedom of Information Request, what do you mean?" the operator asked.
After a quick explanation of FOIL by this reporter, she said go to the mayor's website. When informed the mayor's new website did not have instructions on how to FOIL, the operator said to call him.
"Can you spell the new mayor's last name for me?" the operator asked.
After a minute, the operator said de Blasio's number was 212-NEW-YORK, but this number is the out-of-town number for 3-1-1. The second 3-1-1 operator provided the correct number for the mayor's office, 212-788-3000. The first call there was redirected to an incomprehensible answering machine. The second call was redirected to a robot saying to call 9-1-1 if this is an emergency or to enter an extension number. A third call and an explanation to the secretary about the previous two calls resulted in a long wait and eventually, a response.
The secretary said to mail all FOIL requests to Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Hall, New York, N.Y., 10007. "Umm. attention FOIL," she said. There was no way to submit the request online or by e-mail, she answered.
The FOIL frustrations at de Blasio's City Hall are no worse than what citizens experienced under Mayor Bloomberg. Last year, this reporter called City Hall to learn how to FOIL the mayor's office. The mayor's press office gave the e-mail address of a counsel at City Hall. That e-mail bounced back with a referral to another e-mail address. Multiple e-mails to that address were never returned and, like the current administration, the Office of the Mayor never acknowledged receipt of any FOIL request.