The public and the press have only two main weapons to ensure that government groups, politicians and taxpayer-funded agencies are routinely held accountable to the people they serve: the state's Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law.
These laws are designed to ensure open access to documents and meetings that involve public interests. Without them, the press would be crippled in its attempts to highlight financial mismanagement and fraud, inside political dealings or even honest-to-goodness mistakes that result in grave injustices or public endangerment.
But some politicians who proclaim themselves "public servants" have more or less said they believe closed-door meetings and inaccessible government foster expediency and results -- no embarrassment, no fuss, no long-winded speeches by election-minded lawmakers mugging for the cameras.
That's not how a democracy of the people is supposed to work. Laws exist to protect our interests in a political environment where power and money can easily overshadow the public's concerns.
Unfortunately, the laws that protect the public's right to know in New York State have loopholes and lack the kinds of penalties needed to keep governing bodies in check. Many politicians who have recently been caught flouting the Open Meetings Law have suffered nothing more than a little hand-slapping by the press. The law provides no sanctions such as fines, formal censure, jail time or a three-strikes-you're-out policy for public officeholders. Without more teeth, it is unreasonable to think the law won't continue to be ignored.
On the upside, the public's access to government records may be improving under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) for the first time in at least 15 years.
Currently, it's common for public agencies to string along reporters demanding access to government records by technically "granting" their requests for documents, then never actually supplying them.
"We're still working on it," would be the common refrain.
Some agencies, particularly at the state level, are notorious for this ploy. Because the request was never actually denied, the reporter didn't have grounds to file an appeal for the records and would often be forced to simply let the matter drop.
A new bill just passed in the Assembly and under consideration in the State Senate would require agencies to provide the information requested under FOIL within 20 business days in most cases. If the request requires an extraordinary amount of research or effort, the agency must give a written explanation for why the 20-day deadline cannot be met and offer a concrete date for when the material will be supplied.
We applaud Sen. Nicholas Spano of Yonkers for sponsoring the bill in the Senate. The Assembly version of the bill, adopted Monday, was sponsored by RoAnn Destito of Rome. We look forward to the bill's adoption into law.