A good first step, but not the last

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed two bills into law before a COVID-19 briefing in New York City on Tuesday to expand the state’s open government processes and transparency.

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed two pieces of legislation this week to expand transparency in government and ensure an open process at the state and local levels, including a significant amendment to the state’s Open Meetings Law. This is a small but important victory for champions of unfettered public access to information.

Public participation in government, especially in the forum of a public meeting, are a cornerstone of democracy.

The key bill Hochul signed into law (A1228A/S1150A) will allow the public more opportunity to engage in a more meaningful participation in government. The law will now require documents that will be discussed at open meetings to be made available at least 24 hours beforehand allowing the public to be more aware of what board members are talking about. Under the new law, documents that will be discussed at all public municipal meetings and any proposed resolution, law, rule, regulation, policy or amendment must be made available to the public on request or posted on the government entity’s website at least 24 hours in advance of the start of the meeting. These entities include town, village and county boards, and school boards, among others.

Prior to the new law, the state Open Meetings Law required only that meeting documents be posted online “to the extent practicable” and as “determined by the agency.” Watchdog groups such as the New York Coalition for Open Government have rightly criticized the language in the existing law as too vague and too easy for government entities to abuse. The language essentially left it to the boards to define what was practicable, allowing the board to post the documents whenever they felt like it even if it was only hours before a meeting.

Too often, public bodies in New York would use the weakness of the current law to skirt the important requirement to post materials in advance.

In a wise move, the phrase “determined by the agency” was deleted from the new law.

“It’s time that every public body across the state adopt this common-sense practice, and with this simple legislation, we will ensure that they do,” said Assemblymember Amy Paul, D-Scarsdale, one of the sponsors of the bill.

The difference a few words makes is significant. The new law is a potentially strong, impenetrable defense against government entities that value circumspection over candor.

“At a minimum,” Hochul, who spent 14 years as a local government official in Erie County, said, “I believe that every government agency in the state of New York that’s subjected to the Open Meetings Law should provide this information because the best constituents we have are informed constituents.”

“They have a right to know what’s on the agenda,” Hochul said in signing the bills on Tuesday. “They have a right to contact their elected officials and to share their concerns, and in cases where that information is not available until the last minute or at the meeting, that denies the public what I believe they are rightly entitled to.”

There is no valid, justifiable reason a government entity with a website can’t scan and post online the board member packet for public meetings. Posting documents 24 hours before a meeting is a step forward, but it can’t be the last step. There is room to improve open government laws, including this new one.

New York Coalition of Open Government President Paul Wolf, whose organization has released several reports in recent years faulting local governments in New York for failing to post meetings online, says the posting requirement should be 48 or even 72 hours ahead of the meeting.

“It is said that obtaining a 24-hour requirement is a victory, but that is how bad New York’s Open Meetings Law is,” Wolf said.

What this week’s law has done is improved, perhaps even strengthened, a weak and vague law.

Next, we can hopefully build to more changes in the law. Wolf said the Coalition has some ideas.

We, the People, shouldn’t be forced to accept further manipulations by government to shut the public out of information access. We have a right to know what our government entities are doing. This small but important change to the law should be the first improvement of many.

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