Imagine if you bought a house and you found out there were rooms you weren’t allowed to go in.
You’d be pretty confused, and probably more than a little ticked off.
Well, you own a government. Every inch of it. Every building, every desk, every computer, every paper clip, and all the salaries and all the benefits paid to the people who work in it.
You own it. But there are places that the people who work in government won’t let you go. There is information they want to keep from you. Not just the major classified nuclear-war-type information, but information that affects all of our lives in a very direct way.
Things like employee contracts and reports on the environment, the compensation of all those government employees, information on criminal backgrounds, hirings and firings, and school and municipal budgets.
The state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have been used to uncover government corruption and malfeasance, wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars, pollution and contamination-related illness, and police brutality.
The state Open Meetings Law is used regularly to ensure public officials discuss public matters in the open instead of behind closed doors.
While transparency laws declare that access to records and meetings starts with the presumption of openness, government officials don’t always follow that policy.
As long as no one challenges their attempts at secrecy, they’ll keep doing it.
And that’s why we as citizens need to continually demand that government be open and accessible.
Statewide, battles are currently raging between the citizens, the governor and the Legislature over transparency and public access.
One bill relates to the awarding of legal fees to citizens who successfully challenge an arbitrary denial of records. Another would reduce the amount of time government bodies can take to release public information. Another relates to a proposal to seal certain criminal records that are now available to the public. And another would provide greater access to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which costs New York taxpayers millions.
Even though news reporters regularly use the laws to get information, access is not restricted to the media. Here in New York, citizens have access to a very vibrant state agency dedicated to preserving government transparency called the Committee on Open Government. It’s run by a man named Robert Freeman, who just spoke at Schenectady County Community College a few weeks ago.
The most often-asked question we get, and that Mr. Freeman no doubt gets when someone is denied a record or is shut out of a meeting, is “Can they do that?” The Committee on Open Government helps provide the answer.
The committee offers tools on its website to help citizens work their way through the process of accessing records and meetings. It includes concise explanations of the rules, pre-printed Freedom of Information Law requests that allow ordinary folks to fill in the blanks with the information they want, and advisory opinions that can help guide citizens in their quest for information. The site is www.dos.ny.gov/coog. Or just Google “Committee on Open Government,” and the website will be the first listing that pops up.
This week is what we journalist-types call “Sunshine Week.”
It’s a week annually dedicated to the promotion of open government and the education of citizens on their rights with regard to access to government.
Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing local and national commentary on the state of open government in New York and the rest of the country, hoping to both inspire and educate you on your right to know.
In addition, we invite you to share your thoughts and transparency-related issues on The Gazette’s “Your Right to Know” blog at www.dailygazette.com.
Just like you own your home, you own your government.
All the doors should be open to you.