Here’s how it works in New York when you want access to a public document being held by a state agency:
You ask for the document, and the agency says no.
You file a Freedom of Information Law request, and the agency says it will review your request.
Every once in a while, you get a notice from the state agency, saying your request is under review.
You give up.
New York’s officials, starting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, promote the state as open and transparent, but New York’s “openness” is illusory, like a building with a beautiful façade but nothing behind.
New York has a Freedom of Information Law, but state agencies face no consequences when they fail to follow it, so like undisciplined children, they misbehave over and over.
Reinvent Albany is a nonprofit organization trying to make New York a better place by improving the way its government operates. It focuses on the internet and ways to make state government more responsive and effective through online transparency.
Reinvent Albany is lobbying for the governor to sign a bill that has already passed the Assembly and the Senate that will make it harder for state agencies to flout state law, as they do now.
The bill would strengthen the Freedom of Information Law by automatically awarding legal fees to plaintiffs when they substantially prevail in FOIL cases in court and the agency holding the record had no reasonable grounds for withholding it.
With this law in place, the people who run state agencies will have to rethink the dance they perform to avoid handing out public information they’d rather hide. Refusals will become expensive and embarrassing instead of painless.
Breaking the law should never be the easiest route. But the easiest route now is for people who run state agencies to illegally refuse to release public documents or accomplish the same thing by delaying until the requester stops asking.
The presumption with documents held by state agencies is that they are public. But we have to put the force of the law on the side of New York’s citizens, so the people who run these agencies have an incentive to do the right thing.
The Assembly bill, an amendment to the public officers law, is 2750-A; the Senate bill 2392-A. Everyone with an interest in making state government more transparent, responsive and effective – and that is all of us who live in New York – should urge their legislators and the governor to support this change.
Local editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rob Forcey, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran and citizen representatives Dan Gealt, George Nelson and Patricia Crayford.