EDITORIAL: New open government chief faces a tough road

Fight for open government is more challenging than ever

Shoshanah Bewlay has a daunting task on her hands.

And how she responds to the challenges she faces will help determine how much access the citizens of New York have to government information and activity.

That’s a lot to put on the new executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, which manages the state’s Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law and which, for four decades, has served the unusual role of a state government agency advocating for people against the government itself.

Bewlay comes in at a time of transition in the world of government transparency. 

For starters, the mood of citizens and government officials seems to be toward greater personal privacy.

Part of that shift is due, we suspect, to the growing intrusion into our personal lives of private companies with electronic access to all our finances and personal information.

Facebook and Amazon know our personal preferences from our shopping habits. Our phones tell the world where we are at any given moment. Every week, it seems, some company’s site is breached by a hacker, exposing our individual financial records, emails and passwords to billions of strangers. And while we each personally rebel against invasions of our privacy, we are responsible for a lot of the personal information we put out there about ourselves on social media.

So Bewlay has an uphill battle against people wanting to close the barn door on further exposure of their personal information, a movement that is in natural conflict with the public’s right to know.

The citizens, for instance, have a right to know when someone has committed a crime. The information is relevant for public safety, hiring and housing. Yet public officials are making more laws to seal public records in order to help former convicted criminals get past their past. There’s some merit to the argument for sealing of records, but the citizens’ right to know also must be respected and protected.

The public has a right to see the faces of criminal suspects and to view police reports about criminal activity. Yet public officials and law enforcement are moving ever more closely toward keeping that information secret from the public, or at least making it more difficult to access.

Police want to protect themselves from scrutiny, so they fight to keep disciplinary records from the public — records that the public could use to determine whether police misconduct is being addressed in the best interests of citizens.

And pending in the Legislature are numerous bills to restrict public access to records that are currently in the public domain. One bill, for instance, would allow college students and parents to opt out of disclosing basic information about the students. That could severely hamper reporting about activities on college campuses. Another bill would expand the right of privacy to dead people. Another would restrict public access to court records in cases involving guardianship that are currently public information.

Some privacy protections should be strengthened. But in other situations, access to certain government records involving individuals serves a public purpose and must be retained.

More than ever, the citizens need a strong advocate in Ms. Bewlay’s position to keep fighting for them.

Another challenge she faces is not having the same number of boots on the ground to support transparency as her predecessor did.

A few years ago, newspapers had a reporter at every public meeting and in every municipal hall to keep public officials honest.

The people could count on someone to be there to make sure government officials were operating in the open and that public records weren’t being withheld. Now, those reporters are spread thin and might not be there when a public body wants to violate the Open Meetings Law by going into an illegal executive session. And newspapers don’t have the same resources they once had to challenge a government body when it withholds a record and forces the press to go to court to get it. As the saying goes, when the cat’s away, the mice will play.

Members of the public, therefore, will play a greater role in ensuring their own government’s transparency, and they’ll need a strong advocate in state government to fight on their behalf.
In the past, reporters could call Ms. Bewlay’s predecessor, Robert Freeman, at home to fortify their challenges to government secrecy. Will the new executive director operate that way, or will she find another way to be a ready resource? And who will be calling her?

We’ll also have to see whether Ms. Bewlay will have the mettle and clout to stand up to a strong governor and legislative leaders when pushing for more transparency. If public officials smell weakness or hesitancy, they’ll exploit it. Mr. Freeman was always in officials’ faces, but he didn’t always win. Maybe Ms. Bewlay will take a different tack that’s equally or more effective. We hope so.

Freeman was removed from his job last year due to his misconduct. But he was close to retirement anyway, so this day was going to come sooner than later. Times change, and the fight for your right to know will change with it.

Ms. Bewlay certainly has the credentials for the job.

The six-month search for her replacement was extensive, and she brings many years of experience and a deep knowledge about freedom of information, open meetings and personal privacy protection laws, according to news articles announcing her appointment.

She’s served as general counsel and chief legal officer at the state Office of Information Technology Services, where she oversaw the agency’s legal department. Among her duties was providing counsel on legal and regulatory compliance, information security and ethics.

She’s a graduate of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Shoshanah Bewlay takes on a critical job at a critical juncture in the fight for open government and transparency.

We wish her the best of luck and look forward to working with her.

New Yorkers need her to succeed more than ever.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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