Today marks the beginning of “Sunshine Week,” a week dedicated to the people’s right to know what their government is up to.
After nearly 20 years of local news reporting, I could fill a book with stories of government officials trying to prevent reporters — and hence, the public — from finding out what they’re up to.
Do you care what your government is doing? You should.
Government is spending your hard-earned money, after all, and its actions affect our lives in very fundamental ways. You have the right to know what it’s doing — and you have the responsibility to care. Why?
Well, there’s the money, for one thing. But it’s even more than that.
It’s a core principle of our democracy that our government exists by the consent of the governed. If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you consent?
The people who run governments often seem to think the government’s business is their business, not ours. Whether they use their positions to enrich themselves or their friends and family, or to enhance personal power and bloated egos, the people in charge sometimes act like they’re rulers rather than public servants.
There are laws on the books to, theoretically, ensure open government — laws that date back to the period immediately after Watergate, when (pardon the pun) a light bulb went on and people realized maybe this government of, by and for the people stuff wasn’t necessarily in the hearts and minds of the people in charge.
The laws require government meetings to be held in public, except in very limited circumstances, and for all government actions to be taken in public.
The laws require that the public have access to government records.
These laws embody the public’s right to know.
You shouldn’t find it surprising to learn that many elected officials and their appointed staff at every level of government do everything they can to limit the public’s right to know.
You also shouldn’t find it surprising to learn that people who behave that way usually have something to hide.
I believe it’s a basic, essential function of journalism to shine a bright light on government activities, so citizens can see what their government’s up to — clearly, in focus and in context. I also believe if reporters don’t do this, it ain’t gonna happen.
And I’m here to tell you: It’s not easy and the consequences are real — even on the local level.
Take, for example, what’s happening at EPCAL. Our town board approved a no-bid contract to sell off nearly all of the town’s vacant land at the former Grumman site in Calverton — 1,643 acres for $40 million — without a single public presentation by the people who wanted to buy this public asset.
The contract approval came just one week after the identity of the purchaser was announced and without any public disclosure of the contract terms or the purchaser’s development plans. Why the rush? Well, two of the three members who voted to approve the contract, were on their way out the door. Their terms ended just two weeks later. Surprise, surprise: many aspects of that contract leave a whole lot to be desired where protecting the public’s interest is concerned.
Right after the new year, the purchasers’ representatives met with members of the town board to brief them on their plan. But that briefing wasn’t done in a public session. No, they met with town board members “two by two” — specifically to avoid the open meetings law requirements, which are triggered when a quorum of the board has a meeting. The officials freely admitted this. They said the town’s legal counsel advised them to do this.
But there are other recent examples where transparency is taking a hit in town hall.
Here’s a good one: The town board is now authorizing non-disclosure agreements for the conduct of public business. In November, the board authorized town officials to sign a non-disclosure agreement “to engage in discussions and negotiations concerning a possible business relationship.” Board members wouldn’t disclose what it was about or who the business relationship would be with. We still don’t know what this was about.
And another: Last week, the town board passed a resolution that attempts to prevent board members from disclosing to the public what’s discussed in executive sessions. It’s a blanket prohibition that goes well beyond what the state Open Meetings Law says — the state law limits the prohibition to matters specifically designated confidential or privileged by state statute. The advisory opinions of the N.Y. State Committee on Open Government, citing court rulings, make this very clear.
Can the town board legally adopt a “gag rule” preventing board members from disclosing executive session discussions where state law otherwise allows it?
Don’t get the impression that lack of transparency is limited to town government. School boards usually behave as if the Open Meetings Law doesn’t apply to them at all. Our own school board routinely and blatantly violates the statute, as several past board members have admitted, both publicly in meetings and in not-for-attribution interviews I’ve had.
It’s the rare public official who acts on the “presumption of openness,” as the open government laws demand.
You wouldn’t believe the amount of stonewalling and spin reporters have to cut through to get to the truth. Too many government “public information officers” seem to think their job is finding ways not to provide information — or to package it in a way that effectively avoids answering a question. More and more, elected officials — and their designated “public information officers” — won’t give phone interviews and insist on having questions sent by email or text. (To which I call bullsh*t.)
Then there are records-access officers who do everything they can to delay, obfuscate or outright redact the information being sought.
Another example: The Cornell Cooperative Extension building on Griffing Avenue has been largely vacant since last June due to reports of odors and employees falling ill. I submitted a FOIL request to the county seeking environmental reports, work orders and receipts for cleaning and repairs done in an apparently failed attempt to fix the problem.
Eight weeks later, I’m still waiting for the documents — which on Jan. 16 the records-access officer said would take two to three weeks to provide.
These are just a few recent examples that immediately came to mind. But this is nothing new — and, as I said, I could fill a book with similar stories. I am not alone.
The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press first launched Sunshine Week in 2005. They picked this week to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.
This year for “Sunshine Week,” I’ll be writing about one aspect of open government every day, with articles focusing on how our local governments can improve transparency. I promise I’ll try not to complain too much about what’s wrong, and concentrate on how they can — and must — do better. Here’s the line-up:
Monday: How governments should improve the way they conduct public meetings
Tuesday: How governments should improve access to public records
Wednesday: How governments should improve public notices of government action
Thursday: Why the town police department should improve how it reports crimes to the public
Friday: Suggestion for policies to improve government transparency
Saturday: The threat to local journalism threatens open government and, ultimately, our democracy
The N.Y. State Committee on Open Government publishes a booklet called “Your Right to Know.” It’s a handy guide to open government laws in our state.
If you really want to wonk out, there’s a whole video series on Open Meetings and FOIL. Here’s the YouTube playlist. In the videos, Robert Freeman, the aptly named executive director of the Committee on Open Government (who has held that job since the committee was established and is a nationally recognized expert in this field) explains every aspect of the law.
Problems accessing government documents or files? I’d like to hear about your experiences. Please shoot me an email.
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