You ever go to a public meeting and have no clue what board members are talking about because you don’t have access to the same documents they’re reading?
Many public officials are perfectly happy with that situation. The less you know about what they’re talking about, the more they can get away with. And oddly, the state’s Open Meetings Law has been a willing co-conspirator in this secrecy.
But not for long. Gov. Kathy Hochul this week signed legislation (A1228A/S1150A) that will give members of the public more access to public documents discussed at meetings and more time to review those documents for themselves in advance.
Right now, government boards are required under the Open Meetings Law to make documents such as proposed resolutions, laws, rules, regulations, policies and amendments available to the public prior to a meeting at which they were scheduled to be discussed.
The idea, anyway, is that citizens should be able to follow along and make suggestions, ask questions and challenge board members’ positions.
The problem for citizens is that the law gives boards wide discretion over how and when those documents are posted for public consumption.
Under the law, boards must post the records “to the extent practicable as determined by the agency or the department.”
That’s essentially the same thing as saying, “whenever we feel like it … if we feel like it.”
And who decides what’s “practicable?” The government body holding the records.
The courts have given boards the benefit of the doubt as to how practicable posting records is for them, often allowing them to post records a few hours prior to a meeting.
In the old days, government boards might have been justified in posting records slowly. But in the current age of high-speed, high-storage-capacity computers, there’s no legitimate reason that boards can’t make documents available very quickly.
Since most documents and reports are created on a computer, it takes almost no effort to post them online. For those documents created on paper, scanning and posting online can be done almost as quickly.
The law signed by the governor — representing the first major change to the Open Meetings Law in a decade — puts some long-overdue specificity into the posting requirement by mandating that such documents be posted to the extent practicable at least 24 hours prior to a meeting.
That gives the public a full day to review documents instead of maybe a few hours, or even not at all.
The Open Meetings Law, along with the companion Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) defining access to public records, are both weak, largely toothless and in need of change to promote greater transparency.
This small but important update should be the first improvement of many.