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Blair Horner: Sunshine Week Shines A Light On The Darkness Of NYS Government

This week, the nation focuses on America’s commitment to government openness during “Sunshine Week.”  “Sunshine Week” makes it clear that it is important to maintain an open government, in order to ensure the proper relationship between public officials and the citizens they are pledged to serve.

The critical tool for holding policymakers accountable, as well as ensuring that the public is educated on policymaking, is the Freedom of Information Law.  The Law operates on one basic concept – that government information should be accessible to the public.  Without a strong open access law, it is virtually impossible for the public to adequately participate in, and monitor, governmental decision making.

In addition, state agencies should ensure that policymakers and the public can easily monitor their activities.  The cornerstone of such accountability is for agencies to produce regular, detailed reporting on their activities.

The focus on openness is important, not only for the central roles these programs have played, but in the larger debate over how to strengthen their protections.  A constant review of Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws is important, particularly since they were conceived in the 1970s when files were written on paper and kept in metal cabinets.  It was a time well before anyone knew of the Internet, smart phones or google glasses.

Pledging to make New York’s notoriously secretive state government more open has become a staple of promises by candidates for public office.  In his campaign book, “Clean Up Albany,” then-candidate Andrew Cuomo pledged “to make the State government the most transparent and accountable in history.”

It turns out that that pledge remains unfulfilled.

A study by Gannett Newspapers of 86 New York State agencies found 79 were not in compliance with part of the Freedom of Information Law that requires each state agency to maintain up-to-date “subject matter lists” —indexes of all records maintained by the agency —and to post them on the Internet for all to see.

According to Gannett, two-thirds of the agencies had not posted a subject matter list online at all.

New York State law requires that state agencies each year update its subject matter lists and placed on its website.

According to Gannett, the list maintained by the governor’s office was last updated on June 2, 2012. Among those out of compliance were key government oversight agencies, like the state Comptroller’s Office and state Inspector General’s Office.  Those offices are charged with making sure other government entities are following applicable laws.

Reporting requirements can be the Legislature’s most effective tools for monitoring agency operations.  Comprehensive and transparent reporting standards are critical to monitoring and assessing the performance of state government.  Legislators must be kept abreast of all of the most current reports flowing from agencies.  The public must also be able to access this information if it is to be expected to make performance-based assessments of public policies and understand how tax dollars are spent.

Defenders of the state’s lax commitment to openness told Gannett that requiring such subject matter lists is unnecessary in the modern age.  But that misses the point.  State government shouldn’t get to choose which laws it follows and which ones it flouts.

Openness scofflaws are only hurting the public that they are sworn to serve.

Gannett deserves public praise for investigating New York’s compliance with its own openness laws.  New Yorkers must demand that all public officials – from the governor all the way to local officials – remember that they are there to serve the public and to follow the laws.  “Sunshine Week” should be a reminder to them that openness is central to the success of a democracy.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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

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