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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Can Albany Fix Itself?

Another week, another conviction of a high-ranking elected official. It’s hard to know if this is the tipping point for change. New Yorkers can only hope so.

Last week, former Senate Majority Leader Skelos was convicted of corruption, essentially for using his public office for private gain. He now joins the former Assembly Speaker as they contemplate time in the slammer.

And they both join an incredible number of elected officials who have disgraced their public office. Both parties and both the legislative and executive branches have been caught acting illegal or unethically – totaling a stunning 41 elected officials over the past 15 years.

New Yorkers should hope that these latest convictions should force Albany to clean up its act. While the dust is settling, the first indications are not great.

Governor Cuomo issued a statement arguing that it is up to the legislature to respond to the ethics crisis gripping the state Capitol. To his credit, the governor stated that he would be offering additional reforms, but did not specify all of what he thought should be done.

The legislative leaders said that they too supported reforms, but offered no specifics.

Poll after poll shows that New Yorkers overwhelmingly want reforms. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that Albany still hasn’t gotten the message.

One thing was clear from the court proceedings against both the former Speaker and the former Majority Leader: the secrecy surrounding governmental decisions raises the corruption possibilities and New York should be doing more to open up government to public scrutiny.

Yet, last week, the opposite seems to have occurred.

The governor vetoed two bills designed to make state agencies accountable for violating the state’s Freedom of Information Law. One bill would have required that state agencies not drag their feet on disclosing information to the public; another raised the likelihood of penalties if the agencies wrongfully denied the public access to public information.

Both proposals were advanced by the state agency responsible for ensuring government openness – the Committee on Open Government. Both proposals were part of the agency’s annual analysis examining what should be done to improve governmental accountability.

Both bills passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. But both were vetoed by the governor.

Why? The governor argued that there were technical defects in the bills. The governor followed up with an executive order requiring that state agencies respond more quickly to FOIL requests. Unfortunately, the governor’s executive order does nothing to ensure openness by local governments (also covered by FOIL) and does nothing to punish state agencies that ignore the FOIL.

As of now, it seems more like Albany muscle memory is taking over – keep things secret. And that is exactly the wrong lesson that the governor and state leaders should have learned from the recent convictions.

Here’s hoping that the governor and other state leaders will embrace reforms, not figure out new ways to deflect public scrutiny. Openness, public accountability, new independent enforcement, high ethical standards should be the new standards. Not finger pointing, kicking the can, and public relations head fakes.

New Yorkers deserve better.

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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