It’s bad enough when public officials try to keep secrets from the public by deliberately misinterpreting the state’s open government laws or take advantage of vague language in the laws to justify not releasing information.
They’ve done it for years to justify withholding information about everything from police brutality to political malfeasance.
But it’s worse when public officials make up their own laws to justify their secrecy, then use that to keep the citizens in the dark.
It’s happened twice in this state in the past couple of weeks, and citizens, judges and state lawmakers need to be more aware of the practice and nip it in the bud.
On Tuesday, the Niagara Gazette reported that the New York Power Authority has refused to disclose whether Amazon had submitted an application for low-cost power for a proposed $550 million warehouse in the town of Niagara.
The reason given, according to the paper: The power authority can’t comment on “potential economic development award applications.”
Well, that’s news to us, and to anyone who’s ever actually read the state Freedom of Information Law.
When pushed by the paper, the Power Authority spokesperson said they weren’t even “at liberty” to confirm or deny the receipt of applications for such awards.”
Government agencies are only allowed to use the old “can’t confirm or deny” denial for very specific matters related to national security or public safety, according to Paul Wolf of the New York Coalition on Open Government. He called the Power Authority’s excuse “absurd.”
But it’s much more. It’s a deliberate and cynical attempt to keep the public from knowing whether a large corporation is seeking a break on its power costs, a sweetheart deal for a large corporation that could result in Amazon’s defrayed utility payments being shifted onto regular ratepayers.
The other example of a government agency fabricating transparency law involves the Erie County Sheriff’s refusal to release body camera footage showing a corrections officer kicking an inmate in the head as he lay on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back, according to the Buffalo News.
The sheriff cited inmate privacy rights for the refusal to release the footage. Yet except in rare cases showing an inmate getting dressed, inmates have no expectation of privacy, the paper says, citing the state Committee on Open Government.
We suspect the video will reveal that the incident was more serious and violent than police have admitted, and that’s why the sheriff doesn’t want the public to view it.
The people should be allowed to view the video and decide for themselves.
Public officials must be held accountable for upholding the public’s right to know.
Their failure to honor that right is made worse when they fabricate their own laws to justify their secrecy.