Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual effort by the nation’s media to promote open government, transparency and the public’s right to know.
If you can’t trust the government and you won’t trust the media, where can you turn to for accurate information?
The answer is public records.
If you want to find out whether you’re paying too much for school teachers, don’t take the word of teachers unions or the school board. Look it up yourself.
If you want to know whether the terms of a public contract favor the taxpayers or the developer, don’t take the developers’ word for it. Look it up yourself.
If you want to know whether the town board is spending too much for highway services or is getting fleeced on tax breaks to corporations, don’t count on their explanation. Examine the records yourself.
In the war against fake news, access to public documents is the citizens most direct path to victory.
If only it were so easy.
More and more, governments are putting up obstacles to government information, an effort not lost on citizens and journalists who struggle every day to obtain information that rightly belongs to the public.
Here in New York, the government’s efforts to erode the public’s access to information are persistent.
Bills to exclude public
In the state Legislature this year, there are a half-dozen or so bills that seek to specifically exclude information from the public.
Among the proposed legislation is a bill that would limit access to or significantly scale back public access to video cameras that spy down upon us. If government cameras are spying on us, shouldn’t we have access to them?
Another bill would restrict records of complaints filed with the state Department of Motor Vehicles against ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. That would limit the public’s ability to make educated decisions about hiring these companies and limit potential customers’ ability to make decisions that could affect their physical well-being when using such services.
Yet another would hide information the governor’s office is required to report to the public on its Excelsior Business economic development program, limiting taxpayers’ ability to know how their money is being spent.
And another would allow the withholding of information on the past criminal records of individuals convicted of certain felonies and non-violent crimes. The practice, known as “sealing,” would place an unwarranted and unfair limit on the ability of employers and other members of the public to protect themselves from someone with a criminal past.
But the news on the legislative front isn’t all bad. In fact, there are bills pending in Albany that would actually expand the public’s access to records.
One would expand the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws to include certain not-for-profit corporations that receive large amounts of government funding. As more and more government entities subcontract work to private organizations, they use a loophole in the open government laws protecting nonprofits from disclosure to hide how they’re spending taxpayer money.
Another bill would provide lawyers fees and other court costs to individuals who were denied records under the Freedom of Information Law when the government entity had no legitimate reason for withholding the records. Passage of this bill might help discourage government bodies from arbitrarily denying the public access to records.
A third bill would make it easier for the public to gain access to state agency and legislative records by requiring agencies to post frequently requested records on their websites, saving citizens the expense and trouble of filing a records request.
Yet another positive bill would help combat illegal deregulation of affordable housing units and give the public more access to information on them by making all rental histories on housing administered by Homes and Community Renewal available to the public through FOIL.
Each assault on the public’s access to government documents fuels the fires of misinformation and interferes with the public’s ability to distinguish between facts and fake news.
If citizens truly find the scourge of “fake news” objectionable, then they need to become active participants in ensuring that government remains open and accessible.
One way to do that is by speaking out against legislation that would inhibit their right to know and by actively supporting legislation that would expand it.