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Government transparency is getting better

February 28, 2012
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

It's great to see that many local governments are working on complying with a new section of Open Meetings Law that requires them to post online documents that are going to be discussed at meetings.

The town of Harrietstown has started posting documents online, and the Tupper Lake village and town boards are looking into different options for websites.

This is an important step in making government more transparent.

Board members will often discuss documents they get in meeting packets - a study, a contract, a report, a written request - and the public sitting in on the meeting could have no clue what they're talking about, or at least miss key details.

Some local political heads have a hard time clearly explaining what they're discussing, too, so these documents could go a long way toward helping the public understand the issues at hand.

It's also important for these documents to be posted far enough in advance that the public can peruse them, so people will know if something relevant to them will be discussed. If it is, they can plan to attend the meeting, but if not, they know they can stay home and not worry about it.

That's especially true for our county governments. At the town level, it's not a big deal to stop by the local town board meeting to see if anything interesting is going on. But when you live in Tupper Lake and the Franklin County seat, Malone, is an hour-and-a-quarter drive away, you don't want to waste time or gas to drop in on a county meeting just to see if anything is being discussed that could have an impact on your life.

Some clerks and other staff who would be responsible for posting documents have argued that the way their boards work makes it difficult for them to follow the new rule. Department heads bring paper handouts to meetings rather than giving them to the clerk ahead of time, or they say they need time on the meeting agenda without giving a reason.

But can't boards make decisions about how their government is run? Why couldn't they just tell their department heads to email a PDF of their handout to the clerk ahead of time, rather than bringing paper copies to a meeting? Aren't 99.9 percent of these documents generated on a computer anyway? Why create the extra steps of printing them out and then making the clerk scan the document? That would save money and time.

There are some government bodies that were already posting their meeting documents online without being required to by state law. The village of Saranac Lake has been posting such documents on its website for about two or three years now, and village Mayor Clyde Rabideau and Clerk Kareen Tyler both told the Enterprise it's worked well for them. People who used to come to every meeting don't feel a need to anymore.

Tyler said doing so has actually made her life easier. When everything is posted ahead of time, there are far fewer Freedom of Information Law requests for her to fulfill than there used to be.

Some have questioned the importance of making meeting documents available beforehand. One person answered my request with something like, "We were hoping that, since none of you guys are quite the New York Times, you wouldn't make us do that."

You don't have to be the New York Times to keep an eye on what's going on in government. In fact, in smaller areas where we don't have those large publications with tons of reporters, and politicians maybe aren't as familiar with laws and don't have a bevy of lawyers to advise them, the local press has to be even more vigilant.

It's our job as the press to be watchdogs over what's going on in government. The First Amendment purposely set aside the freedom of the press to act as a check on politicians.

Very often, the things being discussed are of little consequence. But if the press doesn't remain vigilant, important things can slip through the cracks.



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