In New York, progress on open government and transparency is usually measured in inches.
This year, the state Legislature has an opportunity to take leaps with several key pieces of legislation that, if passed, would make it easier for citizens to get access to public records and learn more about their government.
One issue with which we’ve had a particular problem over time that lawmakers may finally address is the portion of the state Freedom of Information Law that allows law enforcement to withhold records that are “compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”
Sounds reasonable, right? You don’t want to disrupt trials by disclosing confidential information.
But district attorneys and police have exploited the word “compiled” to withhold any document used in an investigation, even documents that were already in the public domain and which would not normally fall under other exemptions.
Back in 2017, for instance, the city of Schenectady used that provision of FOIL to deny public access to code enforcement documents related to the buildings involved in the March 2015 fatal fire on Jay Street, as well as access to email communications among city officials.
The documents were once available to the public, but were snatched from the public record for the investigation into the blaze.
Reporters and citizens have been similarly thwarted by the “compiled” exemption many times.
A bill passed by the Assembly (A5470) clarifies that records cannot be withheld solely because they relate in some manner to an investigation or criminal proceeding.
The bill also would ensure that when the law enforcement exemption is used to deny a FOIL request out of concern for the record’s potential impact on judicial proceedings, only the presiding judge can determine whether to release such information. That takes the decision out of the hands of government officials and prosecutors.
The Senate needs to take up this bill and pass it.
Another good bill (A3203A), the LLC Landlord Transparency Bill, would require the disclosure of names and residence addresses of members, managers or other authorized people of a Limited Liability Corporation in lease agreements where the state is the tenant in office buildings owned by the LLCs.
The reason this is important is because often political contributions are funneled through LLCs, and that raises questions about whether lucrative leases are being awarded by state officials in exchange for those contributions.
This bill would add more clarity to the law so that the public could more easily identify those connections and detect possible fraud or malfeasance.
Another bill (A924/S1625) would help reduce the ability of governments to hide information. Many times, governments create non-governmental bodies that aren’t subject to transparency laws to skirt the FOIL and Open Meetings Law.
This would expand the definition of a public body to include them.
To help make sure state economic development money is being used appropriately, bill A2334 would force the state create a searchable database to allow citizens to review and monitor economic development programs for effective use of taxpayer dollars.
To help citizens have better access to government meetings, bill A1228/S1150 requires government boards to post meeting documents online at least 24 hours prior to a meeting and sets new rules and timetables for live-streaming and posting videos of public meetings.
These are just some of the ways lawmakers could make government more open and accessible.
Contact your state assemblyman and senator’s offices and urge them to support these bills and other vital legislation for your right to know.