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Editorial: Government transparency not optional

Editorial: Government transparency not optional

Governments need to recognize public's right to know
Editorial: Government transparency not optional
Photographer: Shutterstock

Tell us something we don’t already know.

Seriously. Tell us.

The New York Civil Liberties Union on Monday issued a report card on the transparency of police departments around the state and found serious issues with their adherence to the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

To any news reporter or citizen who’s tried to get information from police, the report’s conclusions —based on FOIL requests filed with 23 police departments around the state in 2015 — come as no surprise.

The NYCLU found in its report that many departments have a tendency to delay or evade a response to a request for public information so as to discourage people from seeking information.

The report found that many departments, overly redact information they do release, resulting in less vital in formation being released to the public.

Many also don’t have adequate resources to comply with requests and keep poor records.

Not all police departments act this way. But enough do that it’s viewed as a systemic problem in need of solutions.

If you’re not familiar with government practices, you can be forgiven for believing government entities always follow the law.

But more and more it seems, government entities — not just police — are becoming more reluctant to release information that legally belongs to the people who support them with their tax dollars.

And they’re making requests more challenging for people, interpreting the Freedom of Information Laws more strictly to take advantage of imprecise wording to deny the public access to governmental records, and using subtle and not-so-subtle practices to intimidate and discourage people who request information.

For instance, some governments require people to provide their names and other information, from anyone who seeks a record. Many governments now require that individuals submit a formal Freedom of Information Law request for any information request, no matter how easily available the records are and how little needs to be done to fulfill the request. Other government bodies maintain a list of all people who seek information.

Formal FOIL requests are indeed useful in helping governmental entities in identifying and providing records. And they do protect the citizens requesting information by giving them written records of their attempts to secure information.

But there are many times when the government official could simply hand over a record without the need for a formal request and without taking down the person’s identifying information.

Some government bodies also demand that people provide a reason as to why they’re seeking information. Most people don’t know that they are under no obligation to give a reason. We went into that in detail in an editorial published on Aug. 28.

No government needs a list of people seeking information, and not every request for information justifies a formal written request.

These tactics are used under the guise of routine record-keeping or clarification  to intimidate individuals and discourage them from making requests. Who wants to have their name on some government list of someone seeking information? How will that list be used against them by the government? Better just to forget about it and keep off the government’s radar.

There are many government bodies that routinely respond to requests from citizens without any of the questionable tactics used by others. They dutifully follow the law and turn over whatever information they’re legally obligated or allowed to provide.

Case in point. We were glad to learn that the town of Clifton Park and the Shenendehowa school district on Tuesday released the tentative terms of a deal for the district to sell a parcel of land to the town for a public park. In an editorial last week, we called on the district and the town to release the information before a final deal was struck so the public could digest and comment on it.

To their credit, that’s exactly what officials did. They even set up public meetings to further discuss the terms.

That kind of disclosure should be the rule, not a pleasant surprise.

But more and more, the balance is shifting away from transparency and openness and more toward delaying or denying the release of the public’s documents as long as possible.

The public must demand of its elected officials that they hold themselves and the departments they administer accountable to public access, that they ensure government employees have the resources and policies in place to fulfill the public’s requests for information, and that officials and staff are aware of the terms of the Freedom of Information Law and of their responsibility to uphold it.

It’s your right to have access to public documents. It’s the government’s obligation to make sure you receive them in a fair, timely and complete manner.

For a link to the NYCLU report, visit www.nyclu.org and click on: Taking Cover: How NY Police Departments Resist Transparency.

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