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League of Women Voters Holds Annual Meeting

Albany Representatives Describe ‘Sunshine’ Websites

At the annual meeting of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Port Washington-Manhasset, representatives from State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office and from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office were the featured speakers. Brian P. Herrington, the Attorney General’s Office assistant director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Assistant Comptroller Joseph Ruggiero described two of the new “transparency” programs that provide easy electronic access to statewide government information that up until now has been scattered and difficult to retrieve. This part of the meeting was open to the public.

Nassau County Legislator Wayne Wink introduced Harrington, who demonstrated the Attorney General’s website: www.sunlightny.com. In his introduction on the site, which began about one year ago, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo quoted James Madison, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Harrington pointed out how the website, which is labeled “a public integrity initiative,” can be used to search for bills, member items, lobbyists, state contracts, state corporations, elected officials, campaign financing and much more. Searches can be done in a variety of ways, for example, by bill number, legislator’s name, through maps, by keyword(s), and so forth. The site’s designers have made it as easy as possible to find what one is looking for. There is even a video called “State Government 101” that enables the user to better understand the context of the data on the site. Harrington said, “This is our attempt to make government more open.” He added that they want feedback from users.

Ruggiero described the comptroller’s open government website, called Open Book New York: www.openbooknewyork.com. (Note that you can also link to Open Book New York through the Comptroller’s main website: www.osc.state.ny.us.) The Open Book website provides three powerful search tools: “Search local government data,” which allows taxpayers to access up to 11 years of financial information for more than 3,100 local governments; “Search State Contracts,” which provides the ability, in real time, to examine who is doing business with the state; and “State Agency Spending Search,” which covers all the major spending categories in the specific or the aggregate. Each of these tools is versatile, allowing the user to search in a variety of ways on different fields.

Ruggiero commented that, regrettably, the authorities are shielded from the open government laws. He called them the “shadow government.” He also mentioned that the comptroller’s office plans to add a “seamless tracking” component, allowing the user to track what projects are being done and to see the money as it is being spent. He summed up by saying, “We want New Yorkers to get involved and we encourage you all to do so.”

There was some discussion among the LWV members, both in plenary and privately among themselves, about the chaos in Albany and what course of action, if any, might be appropriate. Ruggiero pointed out that the actions of the New York State Legislature have cost county and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars. He added, “We have a real constitutional crisis going on. The succession [to Governor] is unclear.”

At the business meeting, the LWV elected the following slate of officers for 2009-10: President, Jane Thomas; First Vice President Amy Bass; Second Vice President Judy Tomkin, Secretary Marie Bellon; and Treasurer Judy Harnick. Also selected were directors and committee chairs.