June 5, 2008

Strengthening Freedom of Information

It looks like the New York State Senate and Assembly have returned to Freedom of Information Law strengthening that was vetoed back under Pataki:

The Senate on Tuesday passed the proposal to strengthen Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws by giving the public advance access to some documents subject to public information laws. The Assembly passed a version of the bill last month.

State government would be required to make all public records that fall under FOIL to be made available at least 72 hours before any open meeting where they may be discussed.

It's hard to avoid the snarky question of whether legislative bills will be available to the public for 72 hours before a vote, but if I remember right, this doesn't apply to that.

Nonetheless, it's a big step forward for those of us who've pushed hard for more open government at the local level, not to mention the state.

There's still work to be done, some of which may seem surprising if you haven't followed this. New York's FOIL laws are missing some pieces. The AP article notes further work on:

A separate measure passed in the Senate would require agencies to keep in mind the need to conveniently retrieve documents when designing state information systems. A similar measure is moving smoothly through the Assembly....

One would require that public meeting notices be posted on the Web site for the agency holding the meeting. Another would allow the public meetings to be recorded, as long as it doesn't disrupt the proceedings.

The Assembly also passed legislation that would reimburse the legal fees for anyone who successfully challenged an open meetings law violation.

There's also an Elmira Star-Gazette editorial that gets neatly to the heart of why this matters:

Both of these bills will rattle some public officials who are not accustomed to close scrutiny by media or ordinary residents. But as publicly elected bodies, school boards, village boards, town councils, city councils and county legislatures must be prepared to put their meetings up for public inspection and documentation every time they meet.

I'm very happy that my town got continuously more open over the years about its information, but I know that not every place is like that. I arrived in local politics after open government was a pretty well-known issue, and never had resistance on recording Town meetings. Our Town Clerk, Bambi Hollenbeck, was helpful with formal FOIL requests and with more informal requests. The Village of Dryden was a lot slower the one time I filed a request, but that was a few years ago, so I don't know what they're like now.

The Town of Dryden seems to be moving much further now with the plans for an annual report, which will hopefully get citizens more aware of and more interested in what's going on right around them.

Beyond Dryden, I hope this legislation will help folks at every level get traction on issues that are important to them, drawing them further into the political process.

[Cross-posted at The Albany Project.]

Posted by simon at June 5, 2008 8:48 AM in ,
Note on photos