Closed meetings, gag orders, plans presented without details.
These are just three ways government hides vital information from the public.
Often, that information relates to tax breaks and secret government deals and campaign contributions and projects that will have a significant economic, environmental and taxation impact on the people of a community.
Last week we wrote about the Penn Station renovation project, a redevelopment project in Manhattan expected to cost between $7.5 billion and $10 billion, and include renovations to the aging Penn Station transportation hub and construction of 10 skyscraper office buildings immediately around the station.
The project has proceeded very much in secret, and even though a vote is scheduled this week to move the project into the next phase, there’s still little the public knows about the project itself, the potential implications of tax breaks and payments in lieu of taxes, and how much taxpayers would have to pay should the private funding for the Penn Station renovations fall short.
Our open government laws in this state are inadequate to prevent all secrecy. And often, when the Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) would require disclosure of information, government officials will go out of their way to carve out exemptions to the laws — allowing government boards to operate in secret when they should legally be operating in public, preventing public officials from disclosing information the public should know, and stalling the release of information sought legally through the FOIL process.
As some of our grand-dads used to say, “That’s how they get ya.”
Two pieces of legislation, both regarding economic development, would help forestall the public officials’ ability to keep information about economic developments secret from the people most affected — the taxpayers of New York.
A group of 23 good-government and government watchdog groups are urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign the bills.
The first (A9622C/S8419) would require the community advisory committees of the state’s economic development arm, Empire State Development, to meet publicly. It’s at these meetings where community members are allowed to comment.
But advisory committee members, according to the watchdog groups, often treat the meetings as confidential through gag orders.
How can the public express concerns and offer information about a project, and then have their fellow citizens be left in the dark about what was said at the meetings where important discussions are taking place?
Such secret meetings allow government officials to push through projects and tax breaks and other deals without the public having a chance to even learn any of the details.
Forcing these committees to meet in public would be one way to open the process to more citizens.
Another bill (A10157/S7337) would take away the ability of the governor to remove members of the Public Authorities Control Board who he/she felt were acting above the scope of their authority in approving or rejecting projects that come before the board.
The phrase, “acting above the scope of their authority” is politicians’ code for “didn’t do what the governor wanted them to do.”
The reason this law is necessary is because former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was known for exacting strict controls over the oversight boards under his purview, pushed through changes that allowed him to take such actions against board members.
He did this after the state Senate voted to appoint a staunch opponent of the $3 billion Amazon headquarters proposal to the Control Board.
Since Control Board decisions on financing must be unanimous, the appointment would have given this member essential veto power over funding for the project, which Cuomo favored.
Having the ability to influence the board’s decisions by pushing out Senate-approved members who don’t agree with the governor’s positions is a way for the governor to subvert the review process, exert undue executive influence over projects and prevent government boards from acting independently.
Among the 23 groups that signed on to the July 7 letter to the governor were Reinvent Albany, Citizen Action of New York, the League of Women Voters of New York State, Common Cause/NY, New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) and the Strong Economy for All Coalition.
Gov. Hochul started her administration 11 months ago by saying she favored more transparency in government and vowing to reverse her predecessor’s predilection for secrecy and control.
If she’s as serious as she claims to be, she’ll sign both these bills and make government more transparent to the citizens in matters related to economic development.