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EDITORIAL: Governor should stay on transparency track

EDITORIAL: Governor should stay on transparency track

Two bills -- one signed, one not yet -- would expand the public's right to know

One bill has earned his signature. Another is on his desk.

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo ends up signing both, the citizens of New York will begin to know a little bit more about criminal investigations and a little bit more about businesses whose activities might affect their local communities.

Both bills are important to expanding the public’s right to know.

Back in July, we praised the state Legislature for passing the bills and urged the governor to sign them both.

As of Thursday evening, he was 1 for 2.

A bill the governor signed on Dec. 20 (A414A/S4685) relates to cases in which a business seeks to block the government from releasing records to the public that the business believes could cause “substantial injury to the competitive position of a commercial enterprise.”

In these cases, the government body is  actually seeking to release the information to the public. But it’s being blocked by this language, which allows companies to thwart the public from accessing information about a development project or other enterprise, often until it’s too late for citizens to do anything to stop it. If the government wants the public to know this information, it often has to go to court, at taxpayer expense. This law now will eliminate this delaying tactic and save taxpayers those legal expenses. 

The bill still awaiting the governor’s signature (A3939/A5496) relates to information routinely withheld from the public by judges and prosecutors.

One part of the bill would expand the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to allow records withheld under the so-called “judicial proceedings exemption” to be released by the judge who is presiding over that particular case.

The bill also would amend the exemption currently allowed under FOIL that allows law enforcement to withhold records solely because they relate in some way to an investigation or criminal proceeding.

We’ve long sought changes to this exemption because it gives law enforcement far too broad authority to withhold documents, or even remove existing public documents, from the citizens’ view during investigations. These records might, for instance, shed light on a criminal matter or on government malfeasance and incompetence.

Obviously, there is information that law enforcement should be able to keep close to the vest during an investigation.

But prosecutors and police for years have exploited the exemption to cover any record they might use in an investigation. This bill would help correct that. 

The bill was delivered to the governor on Dec. 19.  We urge him to further commit his administration to transparency and openness by signing this bill next.

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