Journalists make a living often by shining a light on the behind-the-scenes actions of government officials and other people in power. The role of the press is critical to a healthy society. To promote open government, both the federal and state governments have strong laws that preserve a person’s rights to access government records and meetings. Journalists regularly rely on these laws to do their job, but these rights belong to all people. Anyone can request records and attend the meetings of elected officials.
In last week’s issue, TBR News Media participated in Sunshine Week, sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The initiative’s goal is to better inform the public of their open government rights to access records and meetings of government entities of all sizes. We focused on New York State’s Freedom of Information Law and found that some local government offices were following antiquated practices.
Since 1978, governments in New York have been required to adopt a record access code consistent with that of New York State. Not every government is up to date. We found that most government offer preprinted FOIL request forms on their website but lacked record access clause in their online code book.
Fortunately, the state’s Department of State Committee on Open Government makes it easy for officials to update their code. Its website provides model regulations that can be easily adopted.
We’re proud to say that in response to our reporting, Port Jefferson Village quickly agreed to review and revise their code as needed. Another village, Head of the Harbor, was more resistant.
It’s important for people to know that since 2006 New York State requires that government entities accept and respond to FOIL requests via email, if they have email. If they use emails internally, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, Robert Freeman, said that it’s hard to imagine why it can’t be used for record access. New York was the first state in the nation to address this problem. In today’s electronic age, there’s little need to physically go to town or village hall to request or receive records.
Transparency in government is imperative, and we encourage all town and village halls, as well as schools, to review their practices to ensure the easiest means for the public to access records. The more resistant a government entity is to follow open government rules, the more critical it is for people to challenge it.
For more information on New York’s Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law, visit www.dos.ny.gov/coog/.