Editorial: Uphill battle for transparency continues

This week, we in the journalism profession celebrate Sunshine Week

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Try this tonight on the way home.

If you see a police officer camped out by an intersection, run the stop sign.

When the officer pulls you over, explain to him that you only choose to obey certain traffic rules, and that stopping for stop signs isn’t one of them.

Think he’ll agree with you and not give you a ticket?

OK, don’t really run a stop sign. We’re just making a point here.

The point is that laws are passed for a reason and they were meant to be obeyed. People don’t get to decide which ones they’ll follow and which ones they won’t.

Yet despite laws ensuring the public’s right to learn about their government through access to public records and public meetings, government officials still regularly decide not to follow them.

This week, we in the journalism profession celebrate Sunshine Week.

It’s the one week a year in which we focus the public’s attention on government transparency and your right to know about what your government is doing.

In addition to traditional obstacles to transparency, we now have to deal with politicians’ newfound ability to conduct the public business electronically in private and unearth algorithms used in making policy that are kept from the public as trade secrets.

But what would really improve transparency in government is if the government agencies just follow the existing laws.

In many cases, they know they’re violating the law and choose to deliberately blow through legal stop signs. Other times, they claim ignorance of the law in refusing to comply with it. And in other cases where the language of the law is ambiguous but the intent clear, they deliberately choose to err on the side of secrecy.

Almost every day, journalists and citizens encounter public officials who routinely deny access to records without trying to comply with the law, who refuse to follow established deadlines for notification and compliance, who close public meetings illegally by citing phony exemptions or lying about the reason for closing the meeting. Citizens routinely have to fight for basic public documents like police reports and mug shots and budget information.

For example, The Gazette and other media outlets recently sought information about safety issues related to the intersection of October’s fatal Schoharie limousine crash. It’s in the public’s interest to have this information. But officials hid behind subjective language in the law that allows information to be withheld if it was compiled for law enforcement purposes. They also withheld statistical information which doesn’t reveal judgments or conclusions, in defiance of the language and spirit of the law.

One of our reporters recently tried to obtain a salary schedule for a local municipal water authority and was told the agency had payroll records, but not job titles. That’s nonsense. They have to have a list of compensation for each position somewhere. Instead of releasing the information, they’re giving us, and their constituents, the runaround.

Just obey the law and release the information.

Another example: We’ve been trying for months to get information regarding attendance of special events at a local concert venue that’s located on state property. Sure seems like that would be something taxpayers have a right to know about, given they pay for police coverage, traffic control and maintenance of grounds and facilities where the events are held. But so far, officials have found a way not to follow the Freedom of Information Law.

In October, the Albany Times Union was denied access to emails between state Health Department staff and a major donor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Not only would the department not turn over the records, officials wouldn’t even explain why the department couldn’t conduct a search of its own computer system that was the basis for its denial.

For two years, the Buffalo News sought a videotape showing a cell block attendant abusing a criminal suspect in the basement the City Court building. It wasn’t until the federal prosecutor in the case dismissed his objections to the tape’s release that it was finally turned over. Here we have a government employee in a government building committing some kind of act against a citizen, yet government officials felt they had the right to keep the tape secret from the public for two years. 

The Post-Star in Glens Falls has for years published local deeds, along with the sale prices of the properties. That is until recently, when Saratoga County arbitrarily decided to remove the sale prices from the listings. Only after calling out the county on its pages and consulting with industry and state officials did the paper convince the county to restore the sale prices. 

This defiance of open government laws isn’t limited to state and local governments.

On the federal level, the Trump Administration is so secretive that good-government groups have dubbed its record on transparency “an eclipse” on sunlight. To be fair, the Obama and Bush administrations also had awful track records when it came to withholding records and not releasing them in a timely manner. The disturbing pattern toward secrecy continues.

One of the ways governments keep public records from getting into the people’s hands is by charging exorbitant prices to search for and produce records.

In our Your Right to Know blog, we recently highlighted an extreme example in which the federal government is charging citizens outrageously high fees to obtain federal court records and using the program as a cash cow to fund other government programs unrelated to public disclosure.

We could go on all day with examples of how government regularly abuses, ignores, obfuscates and violates existing transparency laws, with the ultimate outcome being the public is deprived of information about government to which they are rightly entitled.

We must say that not all public officials behave this way. In fact, many of the elected and appointed officials we deal with in local and state government are knowledgeable about their obligations and honor them without denial or delay. To those people, and you know who you are, thank you for your integrity and cooperation.

If any progress can be made as a result of this year’s Sunshine Week, let it be that more public officials respect the people’s right to know and recognize and reject efforts to deny citizens that right.

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