Everyone, it seems, wants to let the sunshine in, when it works for them - "sunshine'' being the term used for government transparency and access to information. Last week in Albany, for example, Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, top Republican from Long Island, complained loudly that ruling Democrats were excluding the GOP from deliberations over a new state spending plan for the fiscal year starting April 1. "It's tragic that all the advances we made to open up the budget process are being completely ignored,'' he said, "and that the governor is turning back the clock to the days of three men in a room that came to symbolize the dysfunction of state government," Jay Gallagher of our Albany bureau reported. It's worth noting, of course, that Skelos, who was the Senate majority leader last fall, before the Democrats won the majority in his house, was himself once one of the three men in the room after his predecessor, former state Sen. Joseph Bruno, stepped down. Bruno was one of those "three men'' for a long, long time.
"New bills related to broadening (the Freedom of Information Law) and open meetings are disingenuous when we see that a $122 billion budget is being discussed completely behind closed doors - with the public shut out," Skelos said pointedly - at a Senate panel hearing on ways to open up government operations and records to the public. The hearing, along with many other events and campaigns in New York, Washington and elsewhere, marked "Sunshine Week,'' a commemoration initiated by publishers and newspapers that has emphasized the public's right to know about its government and its workings. Open government is essential if democracy is to thrive. In New York, progress has been slow but steady, thanks to several lawmakers who champion government transparency, and the New York State Committee on Open Government, headed by Robert Freeman, its indefatigable executive director. The committee fights to preserve and expand freedom of information, open government and personal privacy rights.
State, federal efforts
Skelos is right, of course. He and fellow lawmakers in both parties should remember that as a host of proposed bills regarding open government meetings and freedom of information make their way through the Senate and Assembly.
According to the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, for example, the Senate "plans to study the feasibility, cost and benefit of requiring state and local governments to proactively disclose records of public significance on their Websites.'' Other bills under consideration, including some with companion bills already in the Assembly:
- Expanding the definition of a "public body'' for the purpose of open-meetings law compliance;
- Requiring government bodies to post meeting notices on their Web sites and permit audio-visual coverage of open meetings;
- Giving judges expanded penalties to impose for willful violations of the open-meetings law;
- Requiring certain records discussed at open meetings to be made available to the public prior to such meetings; and
- Permitting agencies to waive reproduction fees for FOIL requests.
Several are sponsored by members of the Lower Hudson Valley delegation, and they are to be applauded. Now the bills must be reconciled and passed by both houses, then sent to Gov. David Paterson for his review. Advocates will be sure to recommend which deserve his signature. State lawmakers and the governor should take a hint on the desire for transparency not just from the public but also from the Obama administration. Federal agencies were advised Thursday to release their records and information to the public unless foreseeable harm would result. Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines that fleshed out President Barack Obama's Jan. 21 order to reveal more government records to the public under the federal Freedom of Information Act whenever another law doesn't prohibit release, The Associated Press reported. The new standard replaced a more restrictive policy imposed by the Bush administration, under which the Justice Department defended any sound legal argument for withholding records. "We are making a critical change that will restore the public's ability to access information in a timely manner," Holder said in a written statement. Obama had given Holder until mid-May to issue these guidelines, but the attorney general acted much more quickly, making sure they came out during Sunshine Week. Good effort, and good timing, indeed.
Additional Facts - On the Web
- Sunshine Week, led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, is a national initiative about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know: www.sunshineweek.org
- New York State Committee on Open Government: www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/coogwww.html