We hear about transparency frequently, so frequently that it seems too often to have lost its meaning. But in response to a bill signed recently by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Yorkers will enjoy opportunities to take advantage of real transparency.
Since the state's Open Meetings Law went into effect in 1977, we have had countless complaints and comments from citizens who attend meetings of government bodies, people who want to be involved, but who cannot effectively understand or follow a discussion. When the members of a government body have a document in their hands and refer to the second paragraph on page 3, but the document has never been disclosed, the discussion may not provide the ability to know what the members are considering, even though the public can be present.
A new provision, effective Feb. 2, focuses on two categories of records that are "scheduled to be the subject of discussion" during an open meeting. The first involves records that are available under our Freedom of Information Law (known to many as "FOIL"), and the second pertains to records that may technically be withheld under that law: proposed resolutions, laws, rules, regulations or policies. In both instances, government bodies are generally required by that provision to make those records available in response to a FOIL request or on its website prior to the meeting during which they will be discussed. Very simply, the records that may be most important, those that indicate what the government is planning to do, should be disclosed, within reasonable limitations, before meetings.
To be sure, the amendment doesn't require the government to do the impossible. Some local government agencies don't yet have websites. They may, however, have the ability to copy records requested in advance of meetings so that their residents can follow a discussion. There may be instances in which a lengthy report is delivered to an agency an hour before a meeting, and it may not be reasonable to require that copies be prepared or that the report be posted online within such a short time.
While it may be difficult today for some government agencies to fully implement the new law, it is clear that the use of the Internet is becoming more widespread with each passing day. That trend will lead to the routine disclosure of records online, and the public, as well as government, will be the beneficiary.
A village official recently estimated that posting records on the village website, rather than preparing photocopies requested under FOIL, will save taxpayers $3,000 annually. More important will be the ability of citizens to know how and why government decisions are made, and to offer suggestions and opinions that will result in better and more responsive government. Our new era of real transparency can only enhance confidence and trust in those who serve the public and enable the public and government, working together, to improve our communities.
Robert J. Freeman is executive director of the Committee on Open Government, a division of the New York State Department of State.