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Jul 22, 2013 5:18 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Church Leaders Question Transparency Of Suffolk County Board Of Elections

Jul 30, 2013 6:28 PM

A Freedom of Information Law request filed by the Reverend Donald Havrilla, on behalf of the Southampton Full Gospel Church, which he leads, has become a cautionary tale with a classic children’s storybook lesson: Be careful what you wish for.

On April 18, the Southampton Village church requested information from the Suffolk County Board of Elections—namely, a list of all registered voters in Southampton Town, their party affiliations and the frequency in which they vote in elections. Rev. Havrilla maintains that officials at his church, who are politically active and tend to lean toward the conservative in their stance on national issues, wanted to utilize the information requested, all of which is available to the public, in order to know where in the municipality to focus their advocacy campaigns.

More than a month later, on May 27—and after first refusing but finally agreeing to pay a $25 fee for the public information—Rev. Havrilla said the Board of Elections honored his request. But church officials quickly realized that they were provided with thousands of pages of documents on a CD, with the information they specifically requested buried under mountains of data.

That’s because the Board of Elections, as has been its policy, was releasing the requested information for all Suffolk County residents, not just those living in Southampton Town. Officials in that office defended their actions by explaining that they release all information so they cannot be accused of purposely withholding certain documentation.

But that policy, argues Rev. Havrilla and others, has had a chilling effect in that basic information cannot be ascertained without the assistance of someone with experience in electronic spreadsheets.

“The info is there, it is just somewhere in a massive pile of data,” Rev. Havrilla said. “What we got was roadblocks of $25 fees and 19 years worth of data—11 million records, dating back to 1993.”

After spending about a week unsuccessfully trying to make sense of the information, Rev. Havrilla said he turned to Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman’s office, seeking individuals who have experience analyzing political data. After spending another four hours with Mr. Schneiderman and an IT expert in the legislator’s office, Rev. Havrilla said he agreed to allow that individual to continue reviewing the documentation for the next few days to see what could be uncovered.

Five days later, the data was returned in a usable format, including a key instructing the church leader how to read the gaggle of numbers. But, according to James Boyd, a volunteer at the church, even with the extra time, the expert’s results “were off by 300 to 400” voters.

“They gave him crazy amounts of data that the computer guys couldn’t even figure out,” Mr. Schneiderman said about the documentation provided by the Board of Elections. “It wouldn’t even go into Excel—it was into the millions of lines.”

Attempting to get the same information through different avenues, Rev. Havrilla said he began requesting other records from the Board of Elections. His requests were met with the same avalanche of documentation. “You wouldn’t believe what we’ve got now,” he said. “Millions more records on more disks.”

Rev. Havrilla explained that he has been repeatedly told by Board of Election officials that the information he is requesting about registered Southampton Town voters is not available.

“We wanted to go deeper. We wanted to look at the town as a whole,” Mr. Boyd said about the request. “If more Democrats are registered to vote here, and a fairly small independent population exists, but Republicans win, what is the reason? We just wanted to see numbers of voter history and registration out here.

“We didn’t suspect anything amiss,” Rev. Havrilla added, noting that the walls put up by the Board of Elections has, however, sparked his interest. “We just wanted the information for purposes down the line. But when we got this instead of a piece of paper, a simple request turned into, wait, is something going on here?”

An employee of the Suffolk County Board of Elections in Yaphank who is familiar with the FOIL request said her office honored it, adding that county workers are not going to format the information that is being supplied. “It is a lot of information, but it is what they asked for,” said the employee, who would only give her name as Betty. “They want to find something, but they don’t want to do the work. We’re not going to do the political work for you.”

Jesse Garcia, an aide to Republican Suffolk County Board of Elections Commissioner Wayne Rogers, said the office supplied the church with “a form [of data] that is easily usable in multiple platforms.” Mr. Garcia also said the church is not receiving any special treatment, noting that if another entity requests similar information, they will also receive data on the entire county, not just one town.

“We’re not prohibiting individuals from tracking a voter,” Mr. Garcia said. “It is in raw data, so we don’t limit programs. The raw data flows very simply into Access and Excel. It is very simple.”

But Rev. Havrilla and others contend that the information provided is not easy to decipher, with some suggesting that it is being deliberately presented in that manner to either discourage people from asking for such data or to downplay irregularities in the record-keeping. The spiritual leader is also questioning the county’s transparency when it comes to such records, and the ethical questions his experience has raised.

“This is the point,” Mr. Boyd said. “If record-keeping is this poor, or purposefully this confusing, how can we trust it? We have had such close elections lately—this stuff is important.”

Mr. Schneiderman agrees that there have been issues when it comes to outsiders accessing records kept by the Board of Elections. “I could understand his frustration,” he said, referring to Rev. Havrilla. “It is not unfounded—there is a real issue here. What good is the info if it is unusable?”

But Mr. Garcia disagrees with that assessment, noting that the county’s policy is to release all information so that officials cannot be accused of purposely withholding information. “The best thing for democracy is to be given the most information possible,” he said, adding that if the county had a different policy, “it would be reverse complaints, conspiracy theories that we were holding back info.”

Bob Freeman, the director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, a state agency that fights for transparency in government, said that the Board of Elections is failing to honor the intent of the law by bombarding the public with voluminous information rather than providing them with the documentation requested.

“If an agency has the ability to make the data available in the format of your choice, and you are willing to pay the requisite fee, which is based upon the actual cost of reproduction, that agency is required to do so by law,” Mr. Freeman said.

“If they argue that it is so easy, then I would counter that they can, too, put it into Excel, then,” he continued. “Do you think politicians get it in a more usable format? I rest my case. In government, we’re supposed to be public servants, you know. They should adhere to the Spike Lee school of life—do the right thing.”

According to Mr. Garcia, the Board of Elections honors all FOIL requests by granting the required information in “whatever form the government has it in.” In response to Mr. Freeman’s comments, Mr. Garcia said he is not in a position to answer, but that Mr. Freeman “can share his opinion with the county attorney’s office.”

Regardless of whether or not any laws have been broken, there remains a disconnect between the Board of Elections and the people the office serves—a relationship that Mr. Boyd likened to a “Laurel and Hardy skit.”

“Other counties have a voting line map online for free,” Mr. Boyd said. “Here, it is $25—and an argument. They’ll $25 you to death before you can find anything meaningful. If you can’t get fundamental data in your own town, you’re in the stone ages.

“At a time, with so much distrust in government, to run into these problems is troubling,” he continued. “It has to be more user-friendly. The system is archaic and subject to mistakes, subject to corruption. Whether or not it is happening, we can’t know, if this is what you get when you try to dig deeper.”

Betty, the Board of Elections employee, said the way in which information is shared by her office hasn’t changed in more than a decade—suggesting that technology issues might also have a hand in the way the office shares data. “We’ve had people using this same CD-ROM for the past 10 years,” she said.

Mr. Freeman agreed that those issues could also be contributing to the apparent disconnect.

“Think about the technology available a decade ago, as opposed to the technology commonplace today,” he said. “Suffolk County, a county with approximately two million people and substantial resources, clearly has the ability to make this data available in a more usable format, and yet the complaints we hear about open government in Suffolk dwarf the complaints we hear from other counties.

“Even when the law doesn’t require they do so, many agencies put a variety of data on their websites, and when they do, everybody wins,” he continued.

As for Rev. Havrilla, he is uncertain what his next step will be to gather the information he has been trying to compile since the spring. Mr. Schneiderman, meanwhile, said he will continue investigating what, if anything, can be done at the county level, and that he would lobby state legislations to make sure that the county offices are doing their best to share public information.

“Everybody should have access,” he said. “Otherwise, only those with deep pockets, able to hire IT guys to interpret for them would be able to participate and influence policy. Listen, we needed a cryptologist to figure it out. I couldn’t figure it out. It took my IT guy a really long time.

“Whether or not you agree with his opinions doesn’t matter,” he continued, referring to Rev. Havrilla. “It is about participating in democracy.”

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To add insult to injury, when it comes to requests under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), the Suffolk County Board of Elections has been charging a minimum of $5 per request or record, instead of 25 cents per page. This practice should also be investigated as contrary to the State's Open Government laws. However this is nothing compared to the thievery and thuggery that it is going on with political party leaders wheeling and dealing behind the scenes and the horse-trading for ballot placement ...more
By Linda Kabot (14), Quogue on Aug 2, 13 7:15 AM
1 member liked this comment
Why does Reverend Donald Havrilla, on behalf of the Southampton Full Gospel Church need the data on all of the registered voters in the town of Southampton? Sounds very political to me....I wonder what his TAX EXEMPT status is and to what degree activities on behalf of certain candidates violate that churches tax exempt status?
By SHNative (554), Southampton on Aug 2, 13 8:42 AM
4 members liked this comment
Rev. Havrilla maintains that officials at his church, who are politically active and tend to lean toward the conservative in their stance on national issues, wanted to utilize the information requested, all of which is available to the public, in order to know where in the municipality to focus their advocacy campaigns.

By pstevens (406), Wilmington on Aug 2, 13 3:04 PM
Seems like your typical "Christian" hypocrite to me.

Love thy neighbor, unless the parts of the "Good Book" you choose to cherry pick and believe in aren't your views, or lifestyle choice.

I hope you're not analyzing data on the Sabbath. We'd have to set up a public execution in such a case, right?
Aug 2, 13 9:00 AM appended by Mr. Z
And, we don't live in a "nanny state". Get to work crunching the data.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Aug 2, 13 9:00 AM
3 members liked this comment
Just wondering why this paper would waste their time with someone who only breeds HATED!!! That place is not a church, as the constantly JUDGE PEOPLE!
By sagharborparent (30), sag harbor on Aug 2, 13 10:20 AM
2 members liked this comment
That's a horrible thing to say about that church. They donate a lot of time and money to the needy. What do you people do to help the poor? Probably not much
By chief1 (2800), southampton on Aug 2, 13 3:02 PM
1 member liked this comment
Free computer repair for students, and free refurbished e-waste so people in need have a PC.

In fact, I'm always looking for old desktops and laptops to fix up.
Aug 3, 13 6:33 PM appended by Mr. Z
And just for good measure, I must add that denying anyone civil rights because of your "religious" beliefs is bigotry. PERIOD.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Aug 2, 13 6:33 PM
I hope Jay Schneiderman is spending as much time figuring out the mess he's helped to create on CR39 as he has in helping a hate mongerer target those who may share his views on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Someone's walking a fine line between tax exempt status and politics.
By rv (38), watermill on Aug 2, 13 3:30 PM
1 member liked this comment
Thievery, Thuggery,Ms. Kabot? A career politician that can't run on a record has to create straw men to run against! I remember a front page on the independent that you warned the GOP that you were running no matter what! What should we call this? Bullying your way on to a ballot line? Because I'm positive that there are far more qualified candidates out there for this job than you! There actually on the ticket with you!!! But probably didn't want to get into a primary with a vicious politician ...more
By The Gipper (11), Sag Harbor on Aug 2, 13 6:02 PM
1 member liked this comment
Just FOIL the voter registration rolls furnished to each political committee person for the election districts in the Town. The exact information requested is provided in a suitable format that easy to understand.
By ridiculous (214), hampton bays on Aug 2, 13 6:38 PM
This is not about who is asking for the information, it is about anybody's access to obtain public information regardless of that individuals political and/or religious or lack of religious beliefs.

I served as the Democratic Commissioner at the BOE for 3 years. At that time the BOE would burn a CD Rom of individual towns. The IT person at the BOE has been there since the beginning he created the programs. It might be a little confusing when the voter history is thrown in, but the ...more
By NTiger (543), Southampton on Aug 3, 13 12:14 PM
So, NTiger, you seem to be saying the BOE foxes are running riot now, but back at some unspecified time, they kept an eye on each other. You say the Suffolk County BOE "used to be considered the best in the State."

By whom? And on what basis? And how do we know that? And does that golden period include your three years of stewardship? What are your sources?

You say "there was no games playing as has apparently become the current situation." Exactly what is the difference ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 6, 13 3:13 PM
Sorry, penultimate paragraph above should read "insure that right" at the end.
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 6, 13 3:18 PM
As to your penultimate paragraph, yes George, four years, three overseas. Late 60s early 70s. United States Air Force.

Starting with what was known around the state as the era of the two Jerry's the Suffolk BOE was recognized as the best in the state by the State BOE Executive Director and staff and the Commissioners of other BOE's around the state. Yes it includes the three years Barbara Barci and I served respectively as Republican and Democratic Commissioners.

A prime example ...more
By NTiger (543), Southampton on Aug 6, 13 8:24 PM
1 member liked this comment
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By southamptondems (8), southampton on Aug 7, 13 2:09 PM
Thanks for the comprehensive answer, NTiger. It's a good answer, and I'm genuinely sorry to have to criticize one aspect of it, but you really spoil a good answer when you disparage the questioner by calling him ignorant for having asked the question in the first place.

That's what you just did to me, and worse yet, you're wrong on the facts. For the record, I am a fifth-generation Long Islander and a fifth-generation Democrat. My father and grandfather were Democratic committeemen, ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 7, 13 2:30 PM
George you are much to sensitive. I did not call you ignorant, not even ignorant for asking the question. My statement was that you were ignorant of the stellar history of the BOE. Ignorant as in not aware of.

And George while you may have spent time here you were certainly not active in the Town Democratic Committee until recently. Unfortunately few people are truly aware of the operations of the Boards of Elections around the state.

And George for those involved in the election ...more
By NTiger (543), Southampton on Aug 7, 13 4:46 PM
'66 - '69, Navy, Viet Nam.
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 8, 13 10:59 AM
Not for nothing..but I just have to wonder why a Minister needs this information? Isn't there any privacy anymore? Are you trying to see and control how your congregation votes?? Or have I got it all wrong? Maybe you want to preach in front of more liberals or republicans? Just wondering...

I have to agree with one of the commenters above, I think "Church" should be more about spirituality...not about pointing the finger and telling everyone what they are doing wrong. Don't forget ...more
By AnonymousSgh (183), Sag Harbor on Aug 3, 13 4:19 PM
2 members liked this comment
Politics, with a side of Dominionism?
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Aug 3, 13 9:08 PM
No tax exempt organization should be supporting candidates of any party with money!
By witch hazel (224), tatooine on Aug 5, 13 4:22 PM
2 members liked this comment
"This idea of God being the source of governmental power, I mean, is always dangerous in anyone's hands..."

~ Howard Zinn
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Aug 7, 13 9:34 PM
Check out the photos with this piece -- these guys don't exactly fit the image of the kindly pastor and his faithful acolyte spreading the message of God's love. There's Reverend Havrila crouched at his computer, ready to spring, and you know he's not looking for canned sermons.

No this man looks more like a predator temporarily deprived of his prey, but patiently awaiting his chance. What are these two trying to ferret out of the voter records? Straying sheep? Liberal agitators? Closet ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 11, 13 5:12 PM
Wow, Turkey Bridge, your post would seem to say a lot more about you than the Reverend and his assistant . . .

If it doesn't get deleted, it would be interesting to see what you think in the morning, after a good night's sleep IMO.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Aug 11, 13 6:33 PM
PS the Press had an excellent editorial last week about the First Amendment issues raised by the actions of the Board of Elections.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Aug 11, 13 6:35 PM
Getting scary George, big brother gonna decide who has access to public information and who doesn't.

I am reminded of an old quote. I would guess you might remember it also

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they ...more
By NTiger (543), Southampton on Aug 11, 13 9:09 PM
1 member liked this comment
Good morning, PBR, I stand by every word. You and NTIger seem unable to read English. You both suggest that I would limit some people's right to access public information, but I said nothing about that, and I wouldn't advocate that.

I merely exercised my own right to free speech by stating my impression of certain photos, and by extension, my opinion of the activities of the individuals in those photos. No one deleted my post, because 27east believes in free speech, as you two apparently ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 12, 13 9:56 AM
Here are your words:

" . . . this man looks more like a predator temporarily deprived of his prey . . . "

"What are these two trying to ferret out of the voter records?"

" . . . a political movement with overtones of the Inquisition."

Are you free to say this? Of course.

Does it read as a democratic opinion? [lower case "d" -- "Favoring or characterized by social equality; egalitarian"]

You tell us, please.

PS -- If your words are coming ...more
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Aug 12, 13 11:51 AM
Well let us simplify matters George.

Let us assume the person requesting the FOIA information from the Board of Elections was from Jack Armstrong an all american individual with no personal baggage or religious overtones.

The question rightfully addressed in the article is whether the BOE properly responds to FOIA requests for public information or not?

No church, no pictures, just a simple, but important public policy question.

Were the actions, or inactions, ...more
By NTiger (543), Southampton on Aug 12, 13 11:31 AM
OK, you're both fighting a rearguard action because you know I trumped you with my last post, and that's alright, but there are differences in your respective approaches, to wit:

PBR, I always speak for myself alone when I post here, and not for any organization or person with whom I'm associated. That said, I truly don't understand your question of whether mine is a "democratic opinion" (lower case). It's my opinion and I've stated it, as is my right. If you disagree, and/or if you ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 12, 13 2:40 PM
"Deplorable"would cover it just fine; thank you for your telling replies. Further, the need to think that anyone is "trumped" goes beyond . . .

One would hope that any democratic organization, with which you may be associated, would cringe in this egalitarian society.

I withdraw from further discussion.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Aug 12, 13 4:09 PM