Your right to know

Sunshine Week was celebrated throughout this past week — March 10 to 16. Sunshine Week is a time to talk about and promote the importance of open government and freedom of information on all levels — local, county, state and national.

And Freedom of Information Day is today– Saturday, March 16.

When it comes to freedom of information, you have more rights than you may realize.

“Your Right to Know” is a publication by New York state’s Committee on Open Government — which is responsible for overseeing implementation of the Freedom of Information Law, Open Meetings Law and Personal Privacy Protection Law — that provides an overview of all three of those laws. Today it can be found online as a PDF download on the New York State Department of State website, dos.ny.gov/open-meeting-law. We’d suggest that all citizens read it and learn more about their rights to access information.

In the media, we keep this information handy, in part, so we can keep public officials accountable for their actions. But these rights pertain to all New York state residents, not just journalists.

Unfortunately, there are some problems with these laws that we believe state lawmakers must fix. Government transparency in this state isn’t the best — the Center for Public Integrity gave New York a D- ranking in its 2015 State Integrity Investigation — and there’s a reason for that.

“Transparency is essential for a functioning democracy, but FOIL is broken in New York,” more than 20 transparency advocates from across the state, including the New York News Publishers Association, New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York Coalition for Open Government, wrote in a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul and other state leaders this week. “State and local agencies routinely take months or years to provide public records requested via FOIL. Not only are agencies incredibly slow to provide records — they often provide a fraction of the records requested and contrive endless excuses, basically daring the public to go to court.”

This is absolutely true.

Just one example among many others: The Enterprise is still waiting for the state Department of Health to release records our newspaper requested more than six months ago regarding the closure of the Lake Placid emergency room. In the time since we submitted our request, the ER has closed and residents are still left with some questions. On Thursday — yes, during Sunshine Week –the Enterprise received its fourth extension letter from the DOH, which told us that the DOH expects to let us know whether or not we will even receive the records we’ve requested by May 16, two more months from now.

This is not uncommon.

“In practice, while some agencies respond to requests promptly, others routinely delay six months or even a year or more before giving an initial response,” the transparency agencies told Hochul this week. “By the time a requestor gets records, if they ever do, the records are often stale and unable to provide needed transparency.”

The state Legislature can easily stop these delays from happening. There is already a bill proposed that would address this issue — Assembly bill A8586/Senate bill S8128. If this bill is passed, agencies would have a maximum of 30 days to reject FOIL requests or a maximum of 60 days to release records. The bill would also streamline the FOIL process by effectively deeming requests denied if agencies don’t acknowledge the requests within five business days, meaning that people requesting the records can appeal and, if necessary, file a lawsuit to access those records faster. This is a small tweak the Legislature can make that would make a huge difference.

State lawmakers should also fix the state’s Open Meetings Law. Right now, there are a slate of rules that governments must adhere to, but there’s no real consequences to breaking those rules. Residents can sue a public body and, if they win, the court may decide to invalidate any illegal votes taken or require the government to pay the person’s attorney fees, but even those consequences place the burden on residents and requires residents to have the financial means to hire an attorney in the first place. In 2009, the Legislature passed a bill that would have imposed a measly $500 fine for government bodies who violate the law, only for the bill to be vetoed by then-Gov. David Paterson. This is not enough –elected officials should face consequences if they violate the law.

As Sunshine Week ends, we hope that state lawmakers take these government transparency issues seriously and make a genuine effort to address them this session.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today