Times Sues Council, Gets Reduced Rate for Information That Will Soon Be Free

When Janet Roberts, a member of The New York Times’ computer-assisted reporting team, asked for some information from the City Council last summer, she said she thought the whole thing would take about an hour.

She had sent a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, dated July 7, 2008, to a City Council spokesman, seeking a “full database of City Council legislation, including introductions, resolutions, and local laws.”

Nearly three months after the request was filed, she received official notice that her request was being denied. She made another request. The Council spokesman then told her that the data would cost $2,500. When Ms. Roberts pressed for an explanation, the price was revised. To $4,300.

On March 2, the Times sued, leading to negotiations and, this week, an agreement with the Council to pay a lower price–$700—for the information originally requested.

The Council says that all along, they were simply deferring to the expertise of the private company that helps them maintain their electronic files.

Ron Cichon, the president of the company, Daystar Computer Systems, says the Council is now upgrading its web site to allow for the kinds of searches at the center of this costly dispute to be carried out by the public easily and for free. (Presumably, it will also minimize the Council’s exposure to further lawsuits from the nation’s largest newspaper, whose lawyer, David McCraw, accused the Council in the initial motion of “a stunning display of government arrogance” and of “discouraging citizens from obtaining those public records.”)

Mr. Cichon said that he and city officials began discussing the update of the Council’s web site around the time the suit was filed, and that the new model is now just a few weeks from launching.

“Five to ten times more information” will be available, including a “very friendly calendar,” he said, in a July 6 phone interview with the Observer. “You can organize and sort any way you want. You can export any of the data into a database, into excel files, manipulate it, do your own kinds of research.”

“From each one of the meeting records, there are links to the committee names and all the individual members, legislative documents itself, and all of its corresponding documents,” Mr. Cichon said. He said that similar features were already available on the Milwaukee City Council’s web site, which his company also works on.

Mr. Cichon said the upgrade of the New York site was “totally unlinked” to the Times’ lawsuit.