In the old days, the Committee on Open Government was an advocate for the people, even though it was couched in a government department overseen by the governor’s office.
Much of that advocacy can be attributed to the vigor and personal devotion of its longtime executive director, Bob Freeman, whose name became synonymous with open government advocacy in New York.
When Freeman was forced out of office in 2019 following allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct, it was vital that the one government office responsible for acting on behalf of the people become even more vigorous and devoted to transparency.
Instead, the office has practically disappeared. No longer is the Committee on Open Government a visible and engaged counter-force to government secrecy. Instead, it’s faded into just another state bureaucracy with little impact.
The Cuomo administration became notorious for its secrecy and failure to honor the letter and spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
Even the appointment of its new director, Shoshanah Bewlay, was conducted in secret.
And in her short tenure, she has failed to stand up to efforts to keep government secret.
For instance, Freeman would have been shouting from the mountaintops over former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s secret book deal and new Gov. Kathy Hochul’s unvetted decision to modify the Open Meetings Law to allow government boards to exclusively hold their meetings remotely.
But Bewlay has been noticeably absent from the discussions.
And she’s certainly been little if any help to government watchdog groups and the media seeking information from the government and in expediting FOIL requests.
If Gov. Hochul is as supportive of government transparency as she claimed in the early days of her administration, she’ll seek a new director of the Committee on Open Government and heed calls from the New York Coalition for Open Government and others to revamp the committee to be less beholden to the governor’s office.
The coalition is not only calling for Hochul to replace Cuomo appointee Bewlay with someone more committed to open government, but also calling for a change in the makeup of the committee — of which nine of its 11 members are controlled by the governor.
Among other changes, the coalition wants the board to include representatives from the state comptroller’s office, the attorney general’s office, the media, the Association of Town Clerks, the Association of Counties and open government advocacy groups, as well as to receive an appropriate level of funding and staff to carry out its mission.
Gov. Hochul should commit to making the Committee on Open Government again an effective and independent voice for the people.
The citizens deserve no less.