Sunshine Week

Press Republican, Plattsburgh

Put teeth in Sunshine Laws

New York’s Open Meetings Law is designed to guide public officials in how they conduct their meetings and the rights of the public to attend them.

The Freedom of Information Law exists to provide rights of access to government records.

There’s no law, however, to enforce either. But there should be.

The “aggrieved” person, according to the state’s Committee on Open Government, is free to take the offending agency to court.

“When questions arise under either the Freedom of Information or the Open Meetings Law, the Committee staff can provide written or oral advice and attempt to resolve controversies in which rights may be unclear,” it says on the the Open Government website.

“Since its creation in 1974, more than 24,000 written advisory opinions have been prepared by the Committee at the request of government, the public and the news media.

Newspapers have long been guardians of transparency in government — news stories and editorials really can shine a light on failures to comply.

But newsrooms are smaller these days, which means reporters at fewer meetings.

Without such a watch guard, there can develop a less stringent attention to the rules, which can then dissolve into an even more casual observance.

It is generally up to the professionalism and conscience of public officials to practice transparency by following the Open Meetings Law.

It is also left to their honesty to provide requested records that meet state guidelines as available through FOIL.

Public entities should be on guard against falling short when it comes to transparency, both at meetings and in providing information.

They should go above and beyond to prove their openness by posting agendas and minutes online in a timely fashion; the City of Plattsburgh does so, as do some other municipalities and school boards.

Far too few don’t, however.

It’s a fact of life that few people attend meetings unless there’s an agenda item important to them; governments should embrace any opportunity to reach more of them.

The Buffalo News

Journalists may make politicians antsy, but that’s necessary in a democracy

There’s no disputing it: The press can be a pain in the neck to public officials. Reporters watch them, question them, challenge them, periodically anger them. Sometimes, their work puts politicians in the cross hairs of prosecutors.

It’s part of the job description, one that the Founding Fathers saw as crucial to the success of a democracy. Thomas Jefferson, who sometimes detested the press, put it this way: “The only security of all is in a free press.”

That’s a far cry from being the “enemy of the people.”

All people do things they wouldn’t want printed in the newspaper, of course. We are, all of us, only human. But when public officials act in ways that compromise their offices, the public has an interest. It is the job of reporters to tell those stories – straightforwardly, fairly and without fear of the repercussions. That is worth celebrating at the start Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of public access to public information.

Not all public officials are on board. Take Chris Collins. The Clarence Republican pronounced The Buffalo News to be smearing him with “fake news” as it pursued the story of how his congressional position intersected with his business interests in Innate Immunotheraputics. He now stands charged with federal felonies related to insider trading. It was real news, all along.

Real news is all around and it can be uncomfortable for its subjects. The mismanagement of the Erie County Water Authority and the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority are real. The crisis in Erie County jails is real. They all take money from taxpayers’ pockets. The Buffalo News told its readers about all of that.

The paper has also informed Western New Yorkers about the abysmal treatment of many nursing home residents here. It exposed the disturbing extent of the sexual abuse of children by priests and the Catholic Church’s role in covering it up. Real and real.

The News revealed that an Erie County sheriff’s deputy, Kenneth Achtyl, had attacked a fan at a Buffalo Bills game, breaking his nose, and mistreated a woman leaving Chestnut Ridge Park. Just in the past several days, it has reported on suspicious activities at the Community Action Organization of Western New York, which spends millions of public dollars. Nothing fake there.

It’s no secret that President Trump doesn’t much like the news media. In that, he has plenty of company among his predecessors. But it counts as a sorrowful and dangerous escalation when he smears journalists as the “enemy of the people.”

With that divisive tactic, the president of the United States undermines the First Amendment, which he swore to uphold as part of his oath. What is more, the claim is transparently false.

Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has led to charges or convictions of at least 34 people and three companies. Several were directly associated either with the Trump administration or the campaign. It may be disturbing to the president that journalists are digging into this, but it doesn’t make them the enemy of the people. Just the opposite. What they are reporting is real.

Journalists make mistakes. When they do, it’s also their job to correct them, promptly and forthrightly. But a mistake, on its own, isn’t proof of ill-intent. It’s simply evidence of the human fallibility of men and women doing important work.

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