Sunshine Week

Uphill battle for transparency in government continues

Try this tonight on the way home.

If you see a police officer camped out by an intersection, run the stop sign.

When the officer pulls you over, explain to him that you only choose to obey certain traffic rules, and that stopping for stop signs isn’t one of them.

Think he’ll agree with you and not give you a ticket?

OK, don’t really run a stop sign. We’re just making a point here.

The point is that laws are passed for a reason and they were meant to be obeyed. People don’t get to decide which ones they’ll follow and which ones they won’t.

Yet despite actual laws ensuring the public’s right to learn about their government through access to public records and public meetings, government officials still regularly decide not to follow them.

This week, we in the journalism profession celebrate Sunshine Week to focus the public’s attention on government transparency.

What would really improve transparency in government is if the government agencies just follow the existing laws.

In many cases, they know they’re violating the law and choose to deliberately blow through legal stop signs.

Other times, they claim ignorance of the law in refusing to comply with it. And in other cases where the language of the law is ambiguous but the intent clear, they err on the side of secrecy.

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Almost every day, journalists and citizens encounter public officials who routinely deny access to records without trying to comply with the law, who refuse to follow established deadlines for notification and compliance, who close public meetings illegally by citing phony exemptions or lying about the reason for closing the meeting. Citizens routinely have to fight for basic public documents like police reports and mugshots and budget information.

For example, The Gazette and other media outlets recently sought information about safety issues related to the intersection of October’s fatal Schoharie limousine crash. Officials hid behind subjective language in the law that allows information to be withheld if it was compiled for law enforcement purposes. They also withheld statistical information in defiance of the language and spirit of the law.

One of our reporters recently tried to obtain a salary schedule for a local municipal water authority and was told the agency had payroll records, but not job titles. They have to have a list of compensation for each position somewhere. But instead of releasing the information, they’re giving us, and their constituents, the runaround.

In October, the Albany Times Union was denied access to emails between state Health Department staff and a major donor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Not only would the department not turn over the records, officials wouldn’t even explain why the department couldn’t conduct a search of its own computer system that was the basis for its denial.

For two years, the Buffalo News sought a videotape showing a cell block attendant abusing a criminal suspect in the basement the City Court building.Here we have a government employee in a government building committing some kind of act against a citizen, yet government officials felt they had the right to keep the tape secret from the public for two years.

The Post-Star in Glens Falls has for years published local deeds, along with the sale prices of the properties. That is until recently, when Saratoga County arbitrarily decided to remove the sale prices from the listings. Only after calling out the county on its pages and consulting with industry and state officials did the paper convince the county to restore the sale prices.

This defiance of open government laws isn’t limited to state and local governments.

On the federal level, the Trump Administration is so secretive that good-government groups have dubbed its record on transparency “an eclipse” on sunlight. To be fair, the Obama and Bush administrations also had awful track records when it came to withholding records and not releasing them in a timely manner. Unfortunately, the disturbing pattern toward greater secrecy continues.

We could go on all day with examples of how government regularly abuses, ignores, obfuscates and violates existing transparency laws, with the ultimate outcome being the public is deprived of information about government to which they are rightly entitled.

We must say that not all public officials behave this way. To those officials who do follow and respect the law, thank you for your integrity and cooperation.

If any progress can be made as a result of this year’s Sunshine Week, let it be that more public officials respect the people’s right to know and recognize and reject efforts to deny citizens that right.

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Mark C. Mahoney is the editorial page editor for The Daily Gazette in Schenectady.