Editorial: Prioritize openness in state government

Contact legislators to fight for right to access
State Capitol Building in Albany.
State Capitol Building in Albany.

The Washington Post’s new slogan is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

That prompted the executive editor of the rival New York Times to quip that it sounds like the name of a new Batman movie.

But all joking aside, the threat of the government keeping the citizens in the dark about information is real and growing.

Here in New York, transparency has always been an issue. Government officials prefer to discuss matters in secret to avoid confrontation with the public and to potentially hide nefarious actions and conflicts of interest.

So it’s vital that citizens support legislation that will ensure public access to government records and meetings.

A number of bills are pending in the state Legislature that should be passed before lawmakers go home for the summer next month.

One bill would require the Empire State Development Corp. to resume issuing regular reports on job creation and job losses related to the flailing Start-Up NY economic development program.

The bill (A7427/S5985) would require an annual report be prepared on the program that includes the number of business applicants, the number of businesses approved, the benefits distributed and received, and the number of net new jobs created, including a cumulative total of job gains and losses.

They’ve already tried to keep this information from us once. Don’t let them do it again.

In another matter that would restore transparency to economic development in the state, lawmakers have proposed a bill to expand the definition of an “agency” covered under the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to include subsidiaries or affiliates of government agencies and separate entities created by a government body.

Governments often try to subvert transparency by creating other entities that aren’t specifically covered by the state’s open government laws as a way to manage large, expensive projects without accountability.

The practice has led to conflicts of interest, the awarding of government contracts to friends and political allies of top politicians, and excessive, wasteful spending.

Another bill (A2750A/S2392A) would allow a court to award attorneys fees when a citizen substantially prevails in a FOIL request and it’s found the government had no reasonable basis for denying the request.

The threat of financial penalties might compel government bodies to fulfill FOIL requests instead of denying them for no good reason and forcing applicants to go through expensive cour proceedings. The Assembly has already passed this. The Senate must now act.

Yet another important piece of legislation would restore the state comptroller’s ability to oversee government contracts before taxpayer money is spent, establishing an independent level of scrutiny that doesn’t now exist.

Contact your state representatives in the Senate and Assembly and demand they support these bills. When the government operates in secret, it opens up the doors to wasteful spending and corruption.

As citizens, we should all be afraid of the darkness.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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