Open Government, Your Right to Know
By Paul Wolf, Esq.
Many Elected Officials Hate the Idea of Open Government
On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson advised his press secretary Bill Moyers that he signed “the f***ing thing”, which is how Johnson referred to the Freedom of Information Act. According to Moyers:
“LBJ had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of open government, hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets, hated them challenging the official view of reality.”
Unfortunately, fifty-one years later in 2017, many elected officials feel the same way about open government as President Johnson did. At the local government level the Freedom of Information Law and New York Open Meeting laws are often violated due to the ignorance of elected officials or an unwillingness to comply with such laws.
The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government
In the summer of 2016, concerned citizens from Erie and Niagara county came together to address open government issues at the local level by forming the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. The Coalition is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, organization dedicated to educating government officials, and citizens about their roles and responsibilities in ensuring an open and accountable government.
In March, 2017, the Coalition released a report evaluating local government websites as far as posting information such as meeting agendas, minutes, providing members of the public the opportunity to be heard etc. Only two of the sixteen websites rated received a passing grade of a C, the other fourteen sites received an F. After the report was released several local governments expressed a desire to make improvements to their websites. In an effort to hold government officials accountable, the Coalition will be doing a follow-up report to track whether local governments have improved their websites.
Can You Believe That Some Elected Officials Do Not Keep a Calendar?
In May, 2017, the Coalition released a report documenting the responses to a FOIL requesting the schedule/calendar of sixteen elected officials. Shockingly five out of sixteen (33%) of elected officials claimed that they did not keep a calendar regarding their governmental duties. Either elected officials just aren’t that busy or they don’t want to disclose to the public their activities; either answer is unacceptable. The Supervisor of Amherst, one of the largest towns in New York State, claims that he threw his calendar away at the end of the year.
Citizens have the right to know what their elected officials are doing as far as who they are meeting with, events they attend etc. The Coalition will be following up the calendar study by seeking the passage of state regulations and local laws, that require a County Executive, Mayor, Town Supervisor to file their calendar at the end of the year with their municipal clerk, to ensure future public access of such information.
Public Officials Meeting Behind Closed Doors
Under the law, elected officials are allowed to have closed door executive session meetings to discuss legal matters, personnel matters and union negotiations. In an upcoming report, the Coalition will be taking a look at how often local governments are holding executive sessions and whether such meetings are being done properly as required by the law.
Citizen Activists Are Needed!
If open and transparent government is important to you, please join our efforts. A group of citizen activists can accomplish a great deal by working together. You can learn more about the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government at our website www.nyopengov.org. Coalition meetings are held the first Thursday of month, 5:30 p.m. at the Williamsville Library located at 5571 Main Street in Williamsville. Coalition President, Paul Wolf, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.