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Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District earlier this year had provided The Citizen with a copy of a lease-to-own agreement for its digester that blacked out financial details. After The Citizen hired an attorney who informed the district of plans to take legal action under the Freedom of Information Law, the district reversed its position that it could not disclose financial information related to the deal with a California energy company.

The Cayuga County biogas digester belongs to you.

The $10.5 million energy and agricultural waste management project was funded by local, state and federal taxpayer dollars, including about $1.5 million that came directly from Cayuga County government's savings accounts. The legal owner of the digester is the taxpayer-supported Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District, and it still owes most of that local project money back to the county.

And that means they owe it to you, the people who pay taxes and fees in the county.

Despite the clear financial interest that residents of Cayuga County have in this facility on County House Road in Sennett, the district insisted for the past six months that the public is not allowed to know the financial details of a rent-to-own deal it struck to turn the digester over to a private energy company.

That was the district's stance throughout the administration of a state Freedom of Information Law request The Citizen initiated in the spring.

But then this newspaper hired a lawyer to fight for the information. And the district, working hand-in-hand on the request with the energy company it's doing business with, quickly backed down.

Today's front-page story about the financial terms of the digester agreement is an example of a hard-fought victory for the public's right to know.

But it's also an example of a glaring weakness in the laws that are supposed to protect that right.

The Citizen is a financially successful newspaper company with a large corporate parent that has a mission to practice public service journalism. When a government agency is clearly violating open records laws, Cayuga County's daily newspaper has the means and the will to fight for information on behalf of the public.

But not every newspaper company — and certainly not every resident — can afford to hire a lawyer to convince a government agency to follow the law if they are being illegally stonewalled.

That's why we've advocated for putting more teeth into New York's Freedom of Information Law. As it stands now, far too many agencies deny access based on the assumption that the information requester won't spend money to take them to court.

One way combat that is to make it easier for seekers of public information to recover legal costs from government agencies when the requester sues and wins in court. The state Legislature has passed a bill that does that, but they need to get it to the governor for his review, and he needs to sign it into law.

Unfortnately, as of last week, the bill had not yet arrived on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's desk. A similar lag has happened in the past, the result was a last-minute veto of a measure that's clearly in the public's best interest.

We urge our state delegation to start getting pushy with this measure. State Sens. John DeFrancisco, James Seward and Pam Helming, and Assemblymen Gary Finch and Robert Oaks have all claimed to be champions of sunshine laws. Now is a time when they can show true leadership on the issue and work to bring more light to government in New York.

The Citizen Editorial Board includes publisher Rob Forcey, managing editor Mike Dowd and executive editor Jeremy Boyer.

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