EDITORIAL: Another report shows need for more teeth in state open government laws

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Are you getting sick of this? Because we kind of are.

Another critical report from the New York Coalition on Open Government.

Another headline on a press release reading something like Tuesday’s: “Boards Fail to Comply With Freedom of Information Law & Open Meetings Law.”

More government bodies in New York blowing off their legal and moral obligation to be open and honest with the citizens.

Yet here we are again, this time with a sampling of county boards of elections — the local government body that administers the election process that’s come under such scrutiny the last few years.

The Coalition on Open Government regularly samples the responsiveness and openness of such organizations by sending FOIL requests and testing boards as to whether they conduct meetings in the open.

In each case, some boards pass their tests; others don’t.

The fact that some comply with the law means the others could if they wanted to.

In the most recent review of 19 county election boards, including Albany and Schenectady, the group tested the responsiveness to FOIL requests for meeting minutes.

Of the 19 boards, 65% didn’t respond to a request sent via email or phone, as required by law. Another 73% of boards failed to acknowledge the request within five business days, as required under the law.

(Remember, they don’t have to fill the request; they just have to acknowledged receipt of it.)

Ten of the 19, or 53%, failed to acknowledge the request at all. They just ignored it as if they never got it — another way governments operate in secret.

On the positive side, the Schenectady County Board of Elections responded quickly and fully to the requests within the time alloted. Congratulations to that board.

The Albany Board of Elections, however, didn’t respond to either FOIL request and never provided minutes. In addition, the board reported that while it’s commissioners meet regularly, no public notice is provided, nor are agendas posted online.

But response rates to random FOIL requests is only a symptom of the problem.

The real issue is that the only consequences the violating boards will face is being criticized by the Open Government coalition and their local newspapers.

There are no sanctions they can be hit with. No one is going to go to any lengths to take them to court.

They’ll just keep conducting themselves this way until state lawmakers decide to hold them accountable.

If the boards won’t voluntarily adhere to the FOIL and Open Meetings laws, then the state must put teeth into to them and force these boards to comply or face real penalties.

Government boards have a legal obligation to be transparent to the citizens.

Compliance shouldn’t be optional.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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