Every year for over a decade, the Empire Center has submitted Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the payrolls of MTA corporate subsidiaries. And in almost every one of those years, one or more MTA entities have failed to comply with the law on a timely basis. Like the shift to Daylight Savings Time, it’s become a regular spring annoyance.
It was May 2015 when the Empire Center was first forced to sue the MTA for FOIL noncompliance. We not only prevailed in state court; the judge even awarded our costs and fees—a bill ultimately paid by taxpayers and transit riders, because of the MTA’s failure to comply. We thought that would set the precedent. Unfortunately, the pattern continued, and just this year we had to appeal a “constructive denial” when the New York Transit Authority failed to even acknowledge our request for its payroll data.
While the Transit Authority was playing ostrich, burying its head in the sand and ignoring our request, the other MTA entities were playing turtle, slowing the process to disclose records under FOIL, arbitrarily giving themselves 90 days to comply. How do we know these timelines are arbitrary? Earlier this month, the MTA released its own report on overtime spending—which had to have been derived from the same data we requested back in early January, but have yet to receive.
The report claims that MTA overtime decreased last year when compared to 2019. And, undoubtedly, the MTA has something to prove in this regard after a 2019 payroll update by the Empire Center showed extremely high overtime levels at the MTA’s Long Island Railroad, among others. Our report led to a federal investigation, a handful of arrests and, ultimately, reforms at the MTA. The agency’s report appears to show the first fruits of those efforts.
As first reported in the New York Post, an MTA spokesman claimed:
While an outside group may have preferred to be the first to announce the MTA’s progress in reducing overtime spending by hundreds of millions of dollars last year, we were pleased to share it with New Yorkers as data became available.
As the “outside group” in question, we might take that snarky quote as a back-handed compliment—but we want to make it clear that the Empire Center isn’t in a race “to be the first to announce” anything. Our goal is to provide taxpayers and transit riders with access to complete information, in a timely manner, about how their taxes, fares and tolls are spent. That’s why we request and post complete state and local government salary datasets on SeeThroughNY.net.
The MTA apparently still doesn’t get it. But they’re hardly alone.
Last July, the Cuomo administration’s Department of Health asked New Yorkers to rely on its own selective “reporting” on nursing home residents whose deaths were caused by COVID-19. But DOH still refused to release the complete data set, and the Empire Center needed to sue for those records. When a Court ordered the agency to hand over the information, we found significant undercounting in their reporting. The MTA will have to forgive us for being cautious.
But lest anyone think there’s only a little room for improvement, foot-dragging on FOILs is not just a problem with the state government and the MTA. For example, in response to an annual FOIL request we filed in early January, the New York City Employee Retirement System (NYCERS) recently claimed last month it would need another four months to hand over the publicly available data we requested.
It’s Sunshine Week—here’s hoping the MTA, NYCERS and other government agencies will finally pull up their shades.