It’s sometimes a challenge to get ordinary people fired up about open government and transparency.
Admittedly, it can be perceived as a dry, legal-ish hobby for political junkies (like politicians and their staffs), government nerds (reporters and editors) and gadflies (an unflattering moniker for vociferous citizens who seem to raise their hands a lot at government meetings).
So a bunch of people push papers back and forth and haggle over numbers on a ream of computer paper. The world goes on elsewhere.
But for those who need to see fire before they check out the smell of smoke, the situation involving the state’s cover-up of nursing home deaths related to coronavirus was a five-alarm blaze.
Short version: The state was hiding the real numbers relating to deaths in nursing homes during the crisis, particularly after getting criticism for an ill-advised policy to require nursing homes to accept discharged covid patients from hospitals.
It turns out that not only did the state not want the numbers to get out, but that top officials in the governor’s office allegedly manipulated the figures downward to make the state and the governor look better in the public’s eyes.
While many people sought the figures, it was only through the persistent pursuit of the information by a government watchdog group, the Empire Center for Public Policy, that finally convinced a court to order the state to release the figures to the citizens.
It took months of them filing Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, having those requests denied, filing appeals and publicly demanding accountability.
The effort took time, money and a dogged commitment to informing the public.
The result of that effort was that the public and state lawmakers finally got a better picture of how the state handled the nursing home situation and of the true impact of state nursing home policies.
The governor’s office’s blatant attempt to hide the nursing home information and the effort by the Empire Center, the media and others to get that information released contributed in no small way to least a dozen pieces of new legislation designed to improve conditions at nursing homes and to make it easier for the public to learn what’s going on inside them.
Score one for the nerds.
This situation is just one example of how far government will go to withhold information from the citizens, and an example of the kind of effort often needed to pry that information loose.
A few years ago, local officials went to great lengths to withhold vital information about a March 2015 fatal fire on Jay Street in Schenectady, using a poorly worded loophole in the state Freedom of Information Law to withhold and delay the release of public documents about building inspections and the condition of the buildings involved.
For many years, police agencies have been withholding information about police misconduct, particularly the disciplinary records of officers accused of abusing suspects, and about lax police department disciplinary policies. The release of such information could protect the public by forcing rogue officers from their jobs before they can injure or kill another citizen during an arrest.
But even after the state passed a law in the midst of the George Floyd death requiring that information be released, police departments are still fighting in court against the release of these types of records.
Not all requests for public information, of course, are life-and-death.
Most are more mundane. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.
The Freedom of Information Law is used by reporters, watchdog groups and the general public every day to uncover conflicts of interest among government officials and the individuals and businesses with which they have dealings.
Filing FOIL requests is the only way we the people might learn about why a school official suddenly resigned, why a particular community spent money on legal assistance, or how much of our tax money is being used to compensate a particular government employee.
One of our reports right now is juggling three separate situations in which government bodies are fighting the release of public records. That reporter is one of many engaged in the same type of battle with government.
In theory, access to public documents is presumptive: If a record is not specifically prohibited by law from being released, it should be released.
But in reality, government officials who don’t want the public to know about their activities work actively every day to control and limit the flow of information to the citizens.
They’re abetted by inadequate state transparency laws that make it difficult, time-consuming and potentially costly for the public to obtain records they’re entitled to see.
There have been improvements in recent years to the laws, particularly in forcing government bodies to pay court costs when they blatantly violate the law to keep information secret. Loosening the police unions’ grip on disciplinary records was a big victory for the citizens’ right to know, although that battle is still being waged.
And some vigilant lawmakers are still pushing for laws (which we’ll go into detail about later this week) to expand the public’s access to government records.
But in all, the fight for government transparency is a never-ending, uphill battle.
Each year around this time, the media takes a week to shine attention on the fight for open government.
It’s called Sunshine Week, the name being a metaphor for the effort to shine a bright light on government secrecy.
Throughout the week, we’ll publish editorials on pending legislation, draw attention to issues related to transparency, and give citizens some tools they can use to help themselves become more informed and aware.
Don’t confuse dry, boring and legal-ish with unimportant.
When it comes to what government activity, we all have an interest in transparency.