EDITORIAL: Gatekeepers control access to public’s right to know

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When it comes to open government, there’s an inherent conflict in the process.

The government officials who are subject to the state’s transparency laws — laws that might expose their secrecy, inefficiency, incompetence and fraud — are the very same people who make the laws.

In order to have open government, we must rely on public officials who don’t fear transparency and who respect the public’s right to know. More than ever, we need these people to take the lead and support open government legislation.

This year, there are a number of bills pending in the state Legislature that are vital to ensuring a fair and open government in New York.

Good government organizations, civil rights groups and news organizations are among those advocating for this important legislation.

One group, Reinvent Albany, has proposed a set of bills that would strengthen ethics oversight on campaign finance laws.

These bills would help the public identify any potential conflicts of interest involving candidates and businesses, business associates, family members and friends who donate to their campaigns. The legislation would make it easier for the public to identify these potential conflicts before voters head to the polls.

Among those bills are those that would require electronic filing of disclosure statements, posting of disclosure statements on campaign websites, including crypto holdings in financial disclosure forms, requiring members of regional economic development councils to file financial disclosure statements and make them subject to state transparency laws, and requiring online publication of judges’ financial disclosure statements.

In February, a collection of watchdog groups — including the New York News Publishers Association, Empire Center, New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and Reinvent Albany — called for legislation to subject government “advisory” bodies to the Open Meetings Law, limit commercial exemptions to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to three years, and end the “consultant report exemption” to allow the public access to consultant reports funded with taxpayer dollars.

These groups also supported the new financial disclosure laws.

The New York Coalition For Open Government has called for lawmakers to close the loophole in the state Open Meetings Law that allows public officials to meet in secret under the guise of a political caucus.

It has also called for more state funding to support open government efforts, including boosting staffing at the state Committee on Open Government and providing local governments with financing for the technology to broadcast and store videos of their meetings.

But change isn’t just needed at the state level.

Local governments control how much access they provide to the public by deliberately delaying or denying public access to records without fear of reprisal.

Surveys by the Coalition For Open Government have found many local government boards routinely flout laws on responding in a timely manner to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, posting meeting agendas and documents online in advance of meetings, and posting video records of meetings.

And despite the fact that state lawmakers opened up certain police disciplinary records to public scrutiny three years ago, police agencies at all levels continue to deny access and fight disclosure efforts in court.

Governments often get away with violating the Open Meetings Law and FOIL because lawmakers have made it so difficult, time-consuming and costly for ordinary citizens to appeal the denials of records or access.

If our transparency laws are to be effective, state lawmakers need to make it more difficult for governments at all levels to violate them. They can do that by giving courts the power to impose sanctions against government bodies that obstruct access to records and meetings.

The people who make our laws have a special obligation to ensure open and honest government.

They can honor that obligation by passing the vital open government bills that are before them this legislative session, and by pledging at all times to support and strengthen the public’s right to know.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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