By Robert Freeman
Executive Director, Committee on Open Government, New York Department of State in Albany, N.Y.
We hear about transparency frequently. It’s become a buzz word used by politicians, and especially by their critics, so frequently that it seems too often to have lost its meaning. Everyone wants transparency, but we’ve learned that achieving it is rare.
I am among the fortunate few to be employed by the government to promote open government. The New York Committee on Open Government was created in 1974 (when I was loaned, temporarily, to get this new office off the ground) as part of the state’s Freedom of Information Law, commonly known as “FOIL”.
Our function is simple: we offer advice, opinions and education to anyone who has a question about public access to government information under FOIL, as well as our Open Meetings and Personal Privacy Protection Laws.
We hear and read about the federal government and the happenings, or just as often, the stalemates, in Washington.
All of that is important, but more important to so many is the activity of government locally. If our real property taxes are raised and we want to challenge the increase, we don’t call our congressman.
We get in touch with the local assessor. If there’s a development proposed in our town, we have an interest in its environmental and economic impact, the flow of traffic, and perhaps increased class size in our schools. We want to see the numbers that go into our budgets before the budgets are set in stone.
The point is that local government touches us directly, and most who participate directly in the democratic process do so locally.
We read about congress and our state legislatures, but many of us actually attend meetings of our city councils, town boards and boards of education.
Since the state’s Open Meetings Law went into effect in 1977, we have had countless complaints and comments from citizens who attend meetings of government bodies, people who want to be involved, but who cannot effectively understand or follow a discussion.
When members of a government body have a document in their hands and refer to the second paragraph on page 3, but the document has never been disclosed, the discussion may not provide the ability to know what the members are considering, even though the public can be present.
Sometimes there is no intent to shield information from the public, but it seems in too many instances that an intangible shield serves as a means of keeping the public in the dark.
A new provision, effective Feb. 2, focuses on two categories of records that are “scheduled to be the subject of discussion” during an open meeting.
The first involves records that are available under FOIL, and the second pertains to records that may technically be withheld under that law, so-called “intra-agency materials” that consist of recommendations — proposed resolutions, laws, rules, regulations or policies. In both instances, government bodies are generally required by the amendment to make those records available in response to a FOIL request or on its website prior to the meeting during which they will be discussed. Very simply, the records that may be most important to residents, those that indicate what the government is planning to do, should be disclosed, within reasonable limitations, before meetings.
To be sure, the amendment doesn’t require the government to do the impossible. Many envision New York as the land of skyscrapers and Times Square. The reality is that most of the state consists of relatively small communities; some local government agencies don’t yet have a website. They may, however, have the ability to copy records requested in advance of meetings so that their residents can follow a discussion. There may be instances in which a lengthy report is delivered to an agency an hour before a meeting, and it may not be reasonable to require that copies be prepared or that the report be posted online within such a short time.
While it may be difficult today for some government agencies to fully implement the new law, it is clear that the use of the internet is becoming more widespread with each passing day. Because the pace of change is so rapid, that trend will lead to the routine disclosure of records online, and the public, as well as government, will be the beneficiaries.
A village official recently estimated that posting records on the village website, rather than preparing photocopies requested under FOIL, will save taxpayers $3,000 annually. More important will be the ability of citizens to know how and why government decisions are made, and to offer suggestions and opinions that will result in better and more responsive government. And when those who serve on government bodies recognize that the public will have the same materials as they do, they’ll likely be more conscientious and better prepared to carry out their duties.
Our new era of real transparency can only enhance confidence and trust in those who serve the public and enable the public and government, working together, to improve our communities. In short, there is good reason in New York in 2012, and even more so in the future, to celebrate Sunshine Week!