EDITORIAL: Transparency test should be easy to ace

Report provides snapshot into open government, but public involvement is needed
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

This test should be as easy for local government to ace as one that asks people to identify a drawing of an elephant.

It’s a test of government openness and transparency. And every county, municipality and school district should get an “A.” If not, they’’re not serving their citizens as well as they could.

A nonpartisan advocacy group, the New York Coalition for Open Government, recently issued a report card for a select few governments in the state, judging them on a handful of basic criteria for how transparent they are.

Communities were graded based on posting of minutes online prior to meetings, whether the meetings were live-streamed, whether recordings of meetings were posted online after a meeting and whether minutes of meetings were posted afterward in a timely manner.

These are all easily attained standards of transparency, and every community should be able to meet them. 

The report was valuable in that it provided some insight into transparency levels. But it was just a snapshot. 

For citizens to truly judge how transparent their local government or school district is, they need to dig deeper.

How much public information, for instance, does their government make available online? We call that “proactive disclosure,” and it’s designed to make it easier for citizens to obtain access to common records so that they don’t need to go through the time and expense of filing a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to obtain them.

Budget information, a directory of public employees and their taxpayer-funded compensation, local laws and regulations, documents related to properties and taxes, meeting notifications, final judgments and dispositions, documents prepared for government meetings and information about how to reach public officials should all be posted and easily accessible on government websites.

But records aren’t the only way to judge government transparency.

How quickly and comprehensively do public officials respond to requests for information? How accessible are they to the public? How often do boards meet without public notice or in secret? How well do they follow the Open Meetings Law regarding executive sessions?

If you want your government to get an “A” in transparency, you have to get involved. Be aware of your rights, keep a close eye on their actions, and call them out when they’re being secretive or uncooperative.

Transparency should be the easiest test for any government to ace.

But still way too often, they fail.

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