One should always be suspicious when the government body that makes the laws for everybody else excludes itself from some of those same conditions — especially when it comes to transparency and public disclosure.
That’s why it’s refreshing, and tenuously hopeful, to see legislation proposed by the governor that would subject the Legislature to more of the same terms of the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that apply to other state and local agencies.
Lawmakers are also considering a number of other important pieces of legislation that would open up government and make it easier for citizens to obtain public records.
One major proposal would give citizens access to records such as legislative schedules and nonpersonal correspondence by shifting the Legislature into the executive section of FOIL, which is included in the Public Officers Law.
Some legislative records are currently subject to a different section of Public Officers Law that includes a finite list of documents the Legislature must make available to the public. That list includes items related to legislation, messages from the governor and final reports to the Legislature.
The section of the law applicable to other state and local agencies (not the courts), on the other hand, provides a very limited list of exemptions, with the assumption being that documents not excluded from disclosure are public.
That’s a major distinction. It’s the difference between going to a candy store that only sells jelly beans vs. one that sells almost every other kind of candy. What will satisfy your sweet tooth more?
This idea of expanding the Legislature’s adherence to FOIL is really nothing new. They propose it virtually every year, and the bill eventually dies without a vote.
What makes this change more likely to happen this year, according to the New York News Publishers Association, is that the language exposing the Legislature to more elements of FOIL is included in a budget bill.
Inclusion in the Article VII bill, as it’s called, instead of in its own separate bill, will make the language very difficult for the Legislature to remove.
Another important proposed change in state law, contained in the same difficult-to-modify budget bill, would make the terms of public employees contracts available to the public prior to a vote by the government body. Currently, government boards often keep the terms of agreements such as teacher contracts secret from the public until after they’ve voted on the contracts. By then, it’s too late for taxpayers who pay for these contracts to view the terms or object to them.
Under this change, the documents will be made available to the public at the same time members of the government body voting on the contracts get them.
They’ll also have to post the proposed contracts on the government website and in the library and government offices for the public to peruse. This change, if approved, would remove a major obstacle to taxpayers learning what they’re going to be paying public employees.
Another major change would make it easier for the public to access public documents by forcing the Legislature and all state agencies to post records deemed of significant interest to the public on government websites.
We call this “proactive disclosure.” Right now, if citizens want certain documents, they have to file a Freedom of Information Law request, a process that can be time-consuming and costly, not to mention frustrating and often futile.
Forcing governments to post significant public records online removes a major obstacle to access and eliminates the need for people to actively pursue a record through a FOIL request.
These changes might seem small or bureaucratic. But they will give the public significantly more access to government records and therefore more information about how their government works.
Lawmakers need to support these changes
If they don’t, then citizens will have no choice but to question what they’re trying to hide.