In an age of entrenched political antagonism, here’s a proposition everyone can support: A democratic government should be as open and transparent as possible. No one — not citizens or businesses, not advocacy groups or the media — should be denied information because there are too many hoops to jump through or it costs too much to get it.
So why has it been so hard for New York to pass a law that would make it a bit more likely for people to get that information? Welcome to Albany, the land of outsized egos and petty turf wars, where good ideas go to die every day.
Now Gov. Andrew Cuomo has an opportunity to rise above this childishness and look like a champion for government transparency. A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would remove one of the biggest obstacles facing those who are wrongly denied documents they have requested under New York’s open-records law — the cost of hiring a lawyer to fight that denial in court. The tab can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, which may be affordable to deeper-pocketed corporations and organizations but is prohibitive for ordinary citizens.
As a result, many denials never get challenged, and New Yorkers can be left in the dark about problematic policies, ethics scandals or serious violations of the law. Remember the stop-and-frisk lawsuit that ultimately forced the New York City Police Department to change a practice that disproportionately targeted black and Latino men? Critical data in that case were revealed through freedom-of-information requests that the department fought until a judge ordered their release. In another case, open-records requests brought to light the N.Y.P.D.’s frequent use of a controversial surveillance technology known as StingRay. Again, the department resisted divulging the information until it was forced to.
Both cases were brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has the energy and the resources for extended court battles. But transparency should be the default, especially in an era when posting large numbers of documents online is easy and inexpensive. The state itself agrees — in writing, anyway. The Committee on Open Government’s website explains that the open-records law is “based upon a presumption of access.”
In practice, the opposite is too often true. State and local agencies deny requests outright or, more often, take so long to respond that they might as well have issued a denial. When they do fulfill requests, they often do so incompletely, with large amounts of information redacted.