When Freedom of Information laws were passed in New York and around the country, they were meant to ensure easy access by the public to information that was public. It was their information, after all; they paid for it.
In practice, though, many public officials use the law to hinder access to information. For example, the city refuses to release video of the brutal assault on a prisoner in the Buffalo Police Department cellblock in the basement of City Court.
That’s just one of the reasons it is so refreshing that a local public official is taking steps to make information readily available to the public and then to promise further steps in case of official recalcitrance. Buffalo Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder has launched an interactive government transparency website called Open Book Buffalo. A link to it can be found on his office website (www.city-buffalo.com/comptroller).
The goal, he said, is to ensure that any information subject to the Freedom of Information Law is made available there. Thus, it provides information on overtime spending, outside legal fees, revenue sources, vendor payments and more. The information is searchable and sortable.
What is more, Schroeder said that if a member of the public cannot access information that is subject to the Freedom of Information Law, he will get it himself and then post it on the website.
This is the kind of commitment to open government that citizens of a democracy deserve. It’s what they have a right to expect, yet Schroeder is the only local elected official to take action as forward-looking as this to ensure that the public can easily access information that clearly it owns.
Too many officeholders treat public information as their secret, and it’s no surprise why: If they can control information, they can influence the interpretation of their decisions on taxes, spending and other matters. Thus, they demand a formal FOI request even for innocuous information, then sometimes deny the request. It’s a delaying tactic and a disincentive to even seeking the information.
Schroeder is helping to change that dynamic, but his work applies only to Buffalo. Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw should do the same, and so should public officials in other municipalities. School districts, too, should take steps to ensure that public information is readily available to anyone who wants it.
Schroeder has been among Western New York’s most consistently valuable public officials since he first became an Erie County legislator in 2002 and especially when he became a state assemblyman in 2005, directly opposing the autocratic – and, it turns out, criminal – regime of then-Speaker Sheldon Silver. He has set an example that other public officials should be eager to follow.