Friday, 23 March 2012 00:00
In the wee morning hours of March 15, long after most observers had left, a massive pile of legislation was dumped on the desks of state legislators in Albany. As Thursday wore on, New Yorkers learned that new deals were cut and legislation passed making significant, precedent-making changes to the state pension system, to casino gambling policy, to the creation of state and federal legislative district boundaries, to the system of collecting DNA from convicted criminals. Most of the legislation did not appear until 3 a.m.
There will be no redistricting reform in 2012, disappointing good government advocates and anyone with a professional or rooting interest in Democrats winning a majority of seats in the state senate in the near future. At least the governor had telegraphed that this was coming for months. Some of the other last-minute deals had some serious people scratching their heads. Why, for example, were New York City firefighters and police excluded from the pension changes? We will know when it is time for us to know, I guess.
Transparency is overrated, it turns out. Only results matter. “You can’t live your life in a goldfish bowl,” Governor Cuomo said on upstate public radio.
Some people think the results can be made better if knowledgeable citizens can have at least a few hours to examine, contemplate and comment on multi-billion dollar policy changes. Or a zoning change, or a property tax levy, or most anything else that doesn’t require urgent and immediate action.
Last week, amusingly, was Sunshine Week across the United States. It always flanks March 16, the birthday of President James Madison, who urged citizens of our new republic to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Hundreds of government units at all levels pass resolutions proclaiming support for opening up government, give tours of government buildings and sometimes adopt rule improvements that make it easier for citizens to follow or participate in decisions. Some municipalities declare “local heroes” who have helped increase access and information. The City of New Rochelle in Westchester County honored Robert Freeman, the longtime executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, and for my money one of the most admirable public servants in New York. His work keeping local governments in compliance has been made harder over the past year due to major cuts in the committee’s budget.
Making open government and freedom of information laws work is a matter of will. When elected officials make clear in both public and in private that business is to be done with openness, with integrity and with public participation, it tends to happen. Open government programs are not only inexpensive but, if done the right way, can actually save money, free up valuable staff resources and just make things go smoother and quieter all around. And yet, somehow, the promise and the results often don’t match up.
In early January, to much cheering and praise, Governor Cuomo signed an important improvement to New York’s Open Meetings Law. Public bodies are supposed to make the text of proposed legislation and key supporting documents available to the public beforehand, and online if they have a regularly-updated website. More than a month after the law took effect, there is little evidence that Long Island town, city and village governments are taking this seriously.
It is no longer uncommon for state commissions to webcast and archive all their proceedings. Many school districts are posting full budgets and minutes, probably because they’ve been under strong scrutiny. Somehow, our local governing bodies can’t figure out the technology, or something. I don’t get it.
A policy of “proactive disclosure” can pay immense benefits in earning public and media trust. That means that most information is just assumed to be public and posted or made available automatically, without waiting for someone to fill out a form. I’ve seen it work firsthand, practiced it and reaped the benefits.
There is nothing stopping local governments from adopting this kind of policy and going way beyond any generic statewide law. Doing the right thing is cheap and popular. You just have to want to.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org