EDITORIAL: Help the citizens get information from the government

The state Capitol Building in Albany.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The state Capitol Building in Albany.

“There aren’t any grownups. We shall have to look after ourselves.”

– William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954.

By law, the government has five business days to turn over public records when citizens request them. Five days.

Unless the government has a legitimate reason for needing extra time to gather up the records, those documents should be in our hands quickly if we ask for them.

Citizens and the government need to understand this:

The citizens own the government. The government works for us. The people who work in government work for us. And as citizens – with very limited exceptions – we’re entitled to see the records they prepare, collect and retain on our behalf.

Because of virtually toothless transparency laws in New York and because of a state government body that no longer provides the hands-on advocacy for open government rights that it did when its former director was in the job, government boards are becoming less and less responsive to the public’s right to know.

Why? Because they can get away with it.

According to an extraordinary letter sent to the state Committee on Open Government by nine media and public advocacy groups late last month, the government is not only taking much longer to respond to Freedom of Information Law requests than in the past, but it’s also not even turning over all the information that’s being requested by the citizens.

“The ugly reality is that information requested via FOIL frequently takes six months to a year to be provided, and delays of 18 months to two years are common.  Worse, the information that is provided is often incomplete and not what was requested,” the letter stated.

The letter was signed by the New York News Publishers Association, Common Cause New York, the League of Women Voters of New York State, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the New York Coalition for Open Government, New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Reinvent Albany, Citizens Union of the City of New York and BetaNYC.

It’s time for the balance of power over government records to shift from the government back to the citizens where it belongs. By obfuscating and delaying the release of public records, the government is depriving citizens of their right to know what government is doing on their behalf.

We need our advocate in state government to do the job it was set up to do, and help advocate on behalf of the more complete and timely release of public information. The Committee on Open Government needs to do more.

Citizens can’t do it by themselves. Advocacy groups can’t do it by themselves.

And in a free and open society, they shouldn’t have to.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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