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Darkness plagues Albany during "Sunshine Week"

This week we “spring” ahead by setting the clocks forward and enjoying more light in the evening. But in the state Capitol, there won’t necessarily be more sunshine.

This week is the annual recognition of the need for government openness. First celebrated in 2005, “Sunshine Week” was launched as a collaboration of national news organizations to promote transparency in government. The idea is that governments are more effective when they allow public oversight and access to documents and proceedings as well as openness helps curb waste and increases government efficiency and effectiveness.

The rationale for celebrating the need for government openness this week – as compared to any other – is that March 16th is the anniversary of the birth of James Madison, our fourth President, and one of the principal figures in the Constitutional Convention. Madison advanced guarantees incorporated into the Bill of Rights, in particular the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, protected by the First Amendment. He understood the value of information in a democratic society, as well as the importance of its free and open dissemination.

It was Madison who observed that "[a] popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

Too often, Madison’s comments have proven true. From the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, to the corruption in the Watergate scandal, it has been clear that the lack of public oversight of governmental decisions can lead to disastrous results.

Here in New York, governmental secrecy has resulted in some of the state’s biggest scandals. Recent decisions to limit the state Comptroller’s oversight of state governmental procurement decisions have contributed to shocking scandals. The top aides to the previous governor were convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison because of their decisions to rig government contracting in favor of major campaign contributors.

It is unlikely that such schemes could have succeeded if another agency had monitored those decisions. People behave differently if they think they can be caught. Corruption risks increase in secrecy.

It was revealed last week that the Hochul Administration is enduring a controversy surrounding an alleged effort to circumvent normal government contracting processes. According to media reports, the former acting state budget director was relieved of her duties as the result of an investigation by the state Office of the Inspector General. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

While the inspector general's office would not provide details of the probe until it is completed, Albany’s Times Union reported that some government vendors have complained about multi-million-dollar contracts being awarded to the company where the former acting budget director previously had worked. Some of the specific complaints centered on contracts that were awarded outside of the normal competitive bidding process.

As mentioned, no charges have been filed but the former budget director and another top ranking official have left their positions.

In addition to that controversy, it was also reported that Governor Hochul’s budget plan proposed to strip away some of the state Comptroller’s oversight of government contracting.

In an analysis of Hochul's budget, the state Comptroller’s office stated that the governor’s plan would exempt some $12.8 billion in state spending from competitive bidding as well as oversight requirements he called "essential for maintaining the integrity of the procurement process."

There is a reason why New York’s Constitution establishes a separately-elected Comptroller. It’s an effort to ensure that independent audits of state spending are conducted and done so in a way to prevent waste, fraud and abuse in government.

Cutting back those powers is an invitation to scoundrels – and New Yorkers have seen how the results – scandals.

The shenanigans playing out around the Comptroller’s powers and the controversies around procurement in general also raise an interesting question: Why allow no-bid contracts at all (outside of a bona fide emergency)?

Albany should use “Sunshine Week” to strengthen – not weaken – the oversight powers of the Comptroller and begin public hearings into the state’s process of awarding contracts.

Let’s heed Madison’s prescient warning that the lack of public oversight of government is “a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.” Let’s let the sunshine in.

Blair Horner is executive 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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