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EDITORIAL: If you want open government, you have to fight for it

EDITORIAL: If you want open government, you have to fight for it

Government will keep secrets if we let it

If the recent coronavirus outbreak has taught us anything, it’s that citizens benefit when government shares information and lose when government withholds it or obfuscates it.

Look how much better we’re being served by our own state government’s transparency and open communication in the face of the outbreak than we have been by a federal government that’s been scrambling to cover up its own inadequacies in addressing the problem.

Information is not just power; it’s empowering. 

It allows us to make decisions and take action for ourselves, rather than leaving those decisions in the hands of government officials who might not always have our best interests at heart.

When we have information, we know what questions we should be asking of government officials. With information, we know more where the failures are in the system and therefore can demand action on the matters that need to be addressed.

We can’t benignly rely on the government to make itself transparent.

Government often acts in its own self interests, protecting its actions and its officials from scrutiny, from conflicting views and sometimes even from prosecution.

Ensure that government remains accessible requires citizens to be active and vigilant on their own behalf.

When we let down our guard, when we move on to other things, when we allow government to lock up information under the guise of privacy or some other rationalization, we forfeit control over our own lives.

We have to become educated about efforts to expand and contract our access to information, and we must communicate with our elected officials to demand openness.

As we’ve written on these pages recently, state lawmakers are considering legislation to give the state’s helpful but powerless Committee on Open Government new authority to enforce the state Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law. 

The citizens need to demand that authority. Lawmakers are also considering a bill ensuring the public access to public meetings during states of emergencies like the current coronavirus crisis by giving government boards the authority to broadcast their meetings, with strict safeguards in place to prevent them from exploiting the opportunity of operating without an in-house audience. We need to support that.

At the same time, government officials are also fighting against efforts to provide access to records and electronic data, such as dashboard and body cameras, that would shine the light on police misconduct. And state lawmakers continue to act secretly and without public discussion or debate when it comes to preparing the state budget, which affects all New Yorkers.

Most recently, lawmakers waited until the middle of the night to pass hastily prepared legislation to vastly expand the powers of the governor in emergencies. The bill was passed within hours of it being distributed to lawmakers, and with little debate and no public input. 

Another element in the fight for your right to know is technology.

Technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to government transparency.

On one hand, the internet makes it much easier than it was in the past for government to share public records, to air its activities in public through telecasting of meetings and to respond to requests for information. 

On the other hand, new technology allows government officials to more easily hide their actions, to communicate in secret and to conduct government business beyond the prying eyes of a vested public.

The fight for transparency is never easy and never ending.

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, the time each year when the news media — which has long been on the front lines of the fight for open government — reminds citizens of their right to know, and helps people understand the challenges and threats to open government.

We hope, through columns and editorials this week and throughout the year, this will give you, as citizens, the incentive, inspiration and information to act on your own behalf.

If we want responsive and effective government, we all need to keep up the pressure on it to be open and accessible.

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