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Commentary & Opinion

Liz Benjamin: Light and Shade

Liz Benjamin
YNN, Capital Tonight

Governor Cuomo made a big show last week of marking Sunshine Week - a national initiative launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to highlight the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.

With great fanfare, Cuomo launched a new website designed to be a one-stop access point for data on local state and federal governments.

The site, open.ny.gov, is essentially an information clearing house, making it easier for members of the public (and reporters) to access a wide variety of data - from food safety and inspection reports to medical conduct and discipline reports.

Simultaneously, Cuomo issued an executive order to state agencies to review and catalog data that they collect and take steps to make public data available on the website, and announced more than 30 state agencies and authorities had already complied and posted their information on the new site.

Four days later - still Sunshine Week, mind you - Cuomo announced that 64 more local governments across the state had signed up to share their data on open.ny.gov, bringing the total number to 69.

With the launch of this site, Cuomo said quote:  New York State has taken another step toward greater transparency in government," adding:

“In addition to reducing costs and housing data for localities, this website helps connect government on all levels with the people it serves."

Contrast that with the goings on of the past 24 hours, and you'll start to see the bizarre disconnect that exists when it comes to transparency and the Cuomo administration.

Cuomo's official schedule, released daily by his press office, placed the governor "in the New York City area" yesterday - a description that, in and of itself, isn't terribly informative or transparent.

By last night, however, the governor had popped up in Albany, where he held a marathon, three-and-a-half hour closed-door meeting with legislative leaders on the budget - a meeting, by the way, that did not end with a budget deal, as everyone involved had hoped.

Look for some sort of announcement today if the leaders and Cuomo want to stick to their plan of starting to pass bills without messages of necessity on Thursday - and perhaps even Friday morning before they skedaddle for their extended Easter and Passover vacation; bills would have to be in print Tuesday night for a Friday passage. 

The Buffalo News reported this morning that quote "Secrecy reigned at the Capitol on Sunday, and some officials appeared little interested in keeping reporters aware that talks were even taking place. According to the news, budget talks were held with Cuomo at the Capitol late Sunday morning.

For the record, Albany is a good 100 miles from Big Apple which seems to be stretching the Cuomo press office definition of "New York City area" just a bit.

Thankfully for members of the Capitol press corps, little birdies were working overtime at the state Capitol last night, and everyone managed to get word of the leaders meeting and take up their stakeout positions outside the door long before the clandestine get-together ended.

This is a perfect example of the Cuomo administration's need-to-know approach to transparency.

In other words: If the governor's team thinks the public needs to know something - be it government data or Cuomo's message of the day - they'll bend over backwards to get that information out.

But if there's something the administration isn't particularly keen on seeing the light of day - like, say, certain papers related to Cuomo's time in the state attorney general's office - they'll go to equally great lengths to keep it private.

Now, to be fair, closed-door budget talks are a tradition in Albany. These gatherings used to be known as "three men in a room," but thanks to the IDC-GOP power-sharing deal in the state Senate, that number has been upped to four.

But the budget is arguably the biggest and most significant project state lawmakers and the governor undertake every year. Sure, the sausage making isn't pretty, would it really be so bad to let a ray of light - perhaps one left over from last week's much-touted Sunshine proposals - illuminate a small portion of this year's talks?

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at capitaltonight.com.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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