When Kathleen Hochul became governor, she promised a “new era of transparency.” In her recent state of the state address, Gov. Hochul did not say one word about transparency. In the …
When Kathleen Hochul became governor, she promised a “new era of transparency.” In her recent state of the state address, Gov. Hochul did not say one word about transparency. In the budget submitted to the legislature, there is no new funding for transparency initiatives and no proposed transparency legislation.
There is an open-government crisis in New York State that can be addressed through the state budget. The only entity measuring compliance with the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law is the New York Coalition For Open Government.
Over the past several years, every monitoring report we have done has documented large-scale noncompliance with open government laws.
For our reports, we randomly select 20 local government entities across every region of the state. Here are some examples of our findings:
72 percent of towns do not post meeting documents online, as required by law.
25 percent of towns do not post meeting minutes or recordings online, as required by law.
39 percent of counties failed to acknowledge a FOIL request within five business days, as required by law.
28 percent of counties never acknowledged our FOIL request.
65 percent of the county boards of elections did not respond to emails or telephone calls seeking information.
73 percent of election boards failed to acknowledge our FOIL request within five business days, as required by law.
It took an average of 49 days just to receive meeting minutes from county boards of elections.
75 percent of planning boards did not post meeting documents online.
Only 25 percent of villages posted meeting minutes online; 35 percent of villages did not even post a meeting agenda.
Out of the 158 school district executive-session motions reviewed, 61 percent were not in compliance with the Open Meetings Law (96 out of 158).
70 percent of the school districts reviewed received a failing grade for how they handled executive session motions. 30 percent of school districts did not do any of their executive session motions correctly.
Increase funding to the state Committee on Open Government. The New York State Committee on Open Government is a great resource for information, but the committee does not have any enforcement power and has limited staff resources. The legislature can show its commitment to open government by providing more resources to the committee. The state’s lack of commitment to open government is clear when the resources provided to the committee are compared to that of other organizations. The committee has a staff of four state-funded employees, compared to the organizations listed below.
Inspector General’s office—92 employees
Joint Commission on Public Ethics—50 employees
Authorities Budget Office—11 employees
Due to the lack of staff, the committee does not have the ability to do any proactive monitoring of compliance with the law.
Provide technology grants to local governments. During the pandemic, live streaming of meetings made it much easier for the public to attend and observe their local government meetings. Across the state, more people watched meetings through live streaming than ever attended meetings in person. Hybrid meetings (in person and virtual) should continue to be live-streamed, with recordings posted online afterward.
Many rural and smaller communities need assistance with internet and video technology so that they can live stream meetings effectively and efficiently. Software that assists local governments with posting meeting agendas, documents, minutes and recordings could also be needed. Allocating funds for the training of local municipal officials is critically necessary.
State grants are made available to assist local governments with sewer, water and economic development projects, but are not obtainable for transparency initiatives.
Funding for mediation program. The Rhode Island and Massachusetts attorneys general have open government units that assist the public with addressing Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Law issues. In Florida, Illinois and Kentucky, the attorneys general have mediation programs to assist the public with Freedom of Information Law disputes. In Arizona, the attorney general has created an open meetings law enforcement team.
In New York, the so-called “People’s Attorney” does not have anything available to assist the public with complaints regarding the Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law.
Enforcement powers are needed. No entity has the power to enforce New York’s Open Meetings Law. The only recourse a person has in New York is to hire an attorney.
In other states, such as Massachusetts, the attorney general has the authority to investigate and to fine government officials who violate the law. In Connecticut, they have an independent commission with the power to address complaints and violations of the law. A restructured Committee on Open Government should be provided with increased staffing and enforcement powers. Hiring an attorney to litigate violations of open government laws is virtually impossible for most people.
The legislature has the ability to address the open government crisis that exists in New York State by providing budget funding and enforcement powers.
Paul Wolf is the president of the New York Coalition for Open Government. This is his written testimony to Senate Finance Committee chair Liz Krueger and Assembly Ways and Means Committee chair Helene Weinstein, slightly edited for clarity.
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