Chronicle wins freedom of information appeal
The Chronicle wins freedom of information appeal: County attorney says ethics code update will make disclosure forms more accessible
"The County Legislature is considering a revised ethics law....That proposal would conform the County Law to the State Law with respect to making these Ethics Forms public, and in fact require them generally to be posted online."
GOSHEN — The Orange County attorney has granted The Chronicle its request for photocopied financial disclosure forms that the county's board of ethics had earlier denied.
County Attorney Langdon Chapman went even further, saying that the county's code of ethics will be revised to allow the photocopying of disclosure forms, and that the county would even post them online.
County officials are now reviewing the current ethics code, which expressly forbids the photographing or photocopying of the financial disclosure forms that appointed and elected county officials are obliged to complete every year. The lawyer for the board of ethics, Donald Nichol, told The Chronicle in April that while the disclosure forms may be inspected and their contents copied by hand, they could not be photographed or photocopied.
The Chronicle's lawyer, Laura Handman, appealed to county attorney Langdon Chapman. She said state law, upheld in court, subjects local ethics boards to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), and that state law trumps local law. She quoted a previous ruling that said the “inspection and copying of annual financial statements, including the source of the official’s income and a delineation of investments, is the very type of information that the public has the right to uncover when looking into conflicts of interest.”
Chapman answered the appeal on June 16. "I am of the opinion that the current Orange County Ethics Law...is unenforceable to the extent that it expressly prohibits photocopying of the County Ethics Form," he said.
The county executive and district attorney in February announced their intention to update the ethics code after Legislator Leigh Benton accepted, and soon after rejected, a job with an architectural firm that had been hired by a legislative committee he headed.
Chapman said that before the new code is adopted, "I am constrained...not to release any more than is required to be released, given the language of the present County Law."
He further said that the county in revising its law "would conform the County Law to the State Law with respect to making these Ethics Forms public, and in fact require them generally to be posted online."
Handman represents numerous news organizations in their First Amendment and freedom of information matters. "Copies will enhance accuracy of reporting about such important information about public officials," she had said in arguing The Chronicle's case.
For the full text of Chapman's letter, see page 12.
By Pamela Chergotis
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