Editorial: Legislature takes step backward on transparency

Lawmakers failed to advance the cause of open government during budget session
The state Capitol Building in Albany.
The state Capitol Building in Albany.

It’s always seems odd that the individuals we put into power in government also have the power to limit how much of their activity we’re entitled to see.

With the New York State Legislature, this year’s budget negotiations produced little progress on expanding the public’s right to know about their government.

For starters, lawmakers have restricted public access to criminal suspects’ mugshots — backing off their attempts to completely deprive the public of their right to know who has been charged with a crime.

The original legislation that supported secret arrests gave police sole discretion over the release of both criminal booking information and mugshots. 

We and other media organizations and good-government groups fought hard against this proposal, arguing that it would allow the wealthy and politically connected to use their influence to keep arrests from being made public, while arrests for others without that kind of clout could still be released. 

In the end, lawmakers relented on part of it, keeping booking records public but prohibiting the release of mugshots unless police wanted to release them to help their investigations.

This still goes too far, as publication of mugshots can be valuable in letting the public know and possibly identify sex offenders and other criminals.

Another area where lawmakers fell down was in not creating a new system to help discourage and prevent bid-rigging and other corruption related to government contracts.

The new budget does include $500,000 for the so-called “Database of Deals” website. But the legislation offers no specifics. And there’s no guarantee, even with funding set aside, that the site would contain the information about government contracts, bidders and job-creation milestones that would make the process much more open. 

There’s still time in this legislative session for lawmakers to create a valuable database. The challenge is to get them to actually do it.

Another proposal that didn’t get into the final budget was a proposal to subject the Legislature to more of the same terms of the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that apply to other state and local agencies. Alas, lawmakers didn’t feel the need to be so transparent.

And lawmakers once again refused to open up police disciplinary records to more public disclosure by not repealing Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law.

Those are just some of the ways lawmakers kept government closed off from the citizens. There were more.

When it comes to making government more transparent and accessible, this budget session was a big step backward.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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