One practice covid hasn’t stopped is government withholding important, relevant information from the public.
The latest example comes in the case of a lawsuit filed by the government watchdog group, the Empire Center, seeking information about the Cuomo administration’s renewable energy goals from the state agencies that are studying the issue.
And as usual, the public’s right to know is giving way to the government’s penchant for secrecy.
Back in April 2019, the Empire Center filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) seeking a study they were both working on to find the fastest and most effective way to reach 100% renewable energy in the state.
In response to the FOIL request, NYSERDA admitted that it had some of the information requested, but said the study wasn’t complete and therefore disclosure wasn’t required under a FOIL law exemption that allows documents considered inter-agency or intra-agency materials to be withheld.
In February, a state Supreme Court justice sided with the Empire Center, saying the two agencies had “failed to meet their burden of proof” to justify an exemption.
All good, right? The citizens win!
Not so fast.
NYSERDA appealed the ruling. And on Nov. 25, a state Appellate Division panel, in a 3-2 decision, reversed the earlier ruling and said the documents could be withheld, since it appeared the Empire Center sought a completed report and the report wasn’t completed.
The two judges who dissented said NYSERDA’s denial of the entire record based on the fact that the study wasn’t complete, while admitting it had records that were being sought, did not qualify for an exemption under FOIL.
Everyone understands that the information, if released right now, would be considered incomplete.
But that shouldn’t prevent the state from revealing what it has to date, with the understanding that a completed report will follow.
Releasing the information now would allow the public to get a sense of the potential costs and direction of the effort and would allow citizens to critique the study, as well as gain an understanding of the fiscal consequences while they still have a chance to do something about it.
There’s no reason for these agencies not to release the information they have, other than to keep the public in the dark about what they’re doing so as to avoid criticism and challenges.
Government has a responsibility to share information, not withhold it.
Let’s hope future judges see this issue another way — the citizens’ way.