There’s been an amazing push the past month by newspapers, good government groups, citizens organizations and lawmakers for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill that would require judges to force government bodies to pay court and attorneys fees when a citizen is unreasonably denied access to a public record.
An analysis released by Reinvent Albany earlier this week showed that in about 23 percent of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) lawsuits, citizens were initially or ultimately denied attorneys’ fees, even when the citizens won their requested records and the agencies had no reasonable basis for denying them.
The governor signing this bill into law will send a message to government bodies at all levels in the state that if they unfairly try to keep public documents a secret, they’ll pay the price.
But even if he signs it, the state still will have a long way to go making itself open and available to citizens.
Despite what we all were taught to believe — that government belongs to the people — many government officials simply don’t see it that way.
Many public officials feel that once they’re elected or appointed, they are free to operate as they see fit.
Keeping the public in the dark about their activities makes it a lot easier for them to take actions they support but know the public will find unpopular.
Operating in secret by denying the public access to records or holding secret meetings or using personal electronic devices to do the public’s business also makes it more difficult for them to get caught when they behave unethically or in appropriately.
So yes, the Legislature should be applauded for overwhelmingly approving this particular bill and sending it along to the governor to sign into law.
Since they’re on a roll with all this transparency stuff, we encourage them to keep going in the upcoming legislative session by passing other bills that will make government even more accessible to the public.
Two areas of government in which the public has a vital interest but in which their access to records is regularly stonewalled is in relation to state spending on economic development and in access to police disciplinary records.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT ACCESS
With all the recent scandals over bid-rigging and other malfeasance in state economic development projects, state lawmakers need to stop resisting efforts to make the process more open to the public.
A number of bills supported by good-government groups would attempt to pry open the doors and expose activities. One bill, which we’ve endorsed in the past, would reinstate oversight for the state’s economic development contracts to the state comptroller. That power was taken away five years ago; the comptroller needs to have it back so his office can — independently from the governor and Legislature — have stricter oversight of these programs.
Another economic development bill would create a database listing all state economic development contracts and include information about how successful they’ve been in achieving their goals.
Public awareness of this information would force these projects to be more accountable and force government officials to scrutinize them more closely.
POLICE DISCIPLINARY RECORDS
With regard to police disciplinary records, outdated statutes restrict the release of disciplinary records and other information about individual police officers.
By keeping police disciplinary records secret, it’s difficult for the public to hold officers accountable for their actions.
While there is value in protecting private information about officers because of the potential for retaliation against them for their dangerous jobs, there are ways to expand public access to their activities without exposing too much personal data.
Especially in these times when public mistrust of law enforcement in some places has reached historic levels, it’s important to rebuild trust between the two by making certain police records more readily available to the citizens. Lawmakers need to begin the discussion now.
We also want to see law enforcement be held to a tighter standard for denying records. Right now, it’s too easy for police and district attorneys to retain or redact public records under the umbrella of “ongoing investigations.”
While it’s vital for law enforcement to keep some information from the public in order to allow them to conduct their investigations, many times that exemption is a catch-all that allows them to hide public information that would not jeopardize their investigations.
PUT MORE DOCUMENTS ONLINE
There is other legislation that also would improve the public’s access to government.
It would require the Legislature and state agencies to proactively post public documents on government websites that are likely to be subject to frequent requests for information.
Why make citizens file paperwork for documents that many people are seeking. This bill would create a hierarchy for the types of information the public seeks the most.
Another issue: Many nonprofit organizations in the state receive a lot of taxpayer money. But because they’re not government bodies, they’re not subject to the state’s open government laws, which means they’re spending a lot of taxpayer money and acting as de facto government entities without being accountable to the people.
One bill (A3077) would require that certain nonprofits that receive more than $1 million in state money be subject to the same transparency requirements as other state agencies.
This particular bill is limited to certain areas of government. We think this legislation should apply to all nonprofits, regardless of function. As long as they’re taking our money, they should let us see how it’s being spent. That’s only fair, right?
Despite what some people in government have come to believe, government does belong to the people. We pay for it. We elect the people who serve in it and who hire the people employed by it. We have a right to know how it’s operating.
State leaders need to build on their support of the court-fees bill by making government even more accessible to their constituents.