A good government group charged Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday to change the head of the state Committee on Open Government — an appointee of disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s — and reconstruct the agency’s structure to keep her promise of running a transparent administration.
The state Coalition for Open Government sent a letter to Hochul urging her to make significant changes within the agency as she has vowed to operate a more open and trustworthy state government since she became the state’s 57th governor Aug. 24.
“In order for you to achieve a new era of transparency, you must rid yourself of appointees selected through Cuomo’s flawed way of doing public business,” Coalition for Open Government President Paul Wolf wrote in Wednesday’s letter. “Several Cuomo appointees have recently resigned from their positions. The same house cleaning needs to occur at the Committee on Open Government.”
Committee on Open Government Executive Director Shoshanah Bewlay assumed the role in 2020 after longtime director Bob Freeman resigned in June 2019 over accusations of sexual misconduct involving female reporters.
Wolf sharply criticized Bewlay’s appointment, which took place behind closed doors, and highlighted her past record of denying each of 10 appeals of FOIL requests denied to the Albany Times Union when she worked as an attorney.
Bewlay does not foster an open government in the state as her position commands, Wolf said, citing her refusal to issue an opinion on Cuomo releasing the details of his $5 million pandemic memoir deal published last October. Bewlay reasoning to leave the decision up to the courts.
“The committee has rendered many opinions on issues that courts have not ruled on, but Bewlay, as a Cuomo appointee, chose to dodge Cuomo’s denial of a FOIL request,” according to Wolf’s letter. “It is hard to believe that Bewlay was the best person available to serve as the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. The process used to hire Bewlay was flawed, and you should direct the undertaking of a new search for the executive director position, done in a transparent way and not through the typical Cuomo closed-door process.”
Bewlay slapped back at Wolf on Wednesday, arguing the claims in his letter are inaccurate.
“I take very seriously the role this office has in promoting an open and transparent government for the people of New York and will continue the committee’s important mission to advise the government, public and news media on the Freedom of Information, Open Meetings and Personal Privacy Protection Laws,” Bewlay said in a statement.
Bewlay was hired as the committee’s executive director in January 2020, after an application and interview process with a five-person selection panel, which included Open Government Committee members Franklin Stone and David Schulz, she said.
In his letter, Wolf contended the Committee on Open Government is outdated and in need of reform.
The committee’s board is comprised of 11 members as dictated under state Public Officers Law, including the state lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, the commissioner of the state Office of General Services, the director of the state Budget Division and seven other people who cannot hold any state or public office, including five appointed by the governor — two of whom must have been representatives of the news media and another who is a representative of local government — and one each appointed by the Senate president and the Assembly speaker.
Nine of the 11 positions are controlled by the governor of the state, Wolf said, adding the offices of the state Comptroller and Attorney General do not get to make appointments.
“The wrong people are at the table and as such the number of governor appointments and state employees should be reduced and replaced with appointments by the comptroller, attorney general, media, Association of Town Clerks, Association of Counties and open government advocacy groups,” Wolf said. “The committee should also be empowered to designate a board chair and to hire an executive director so that it can operate independently and not beholden to the governor. The state’s lack of commitment to open government is clear when the resources provided to the committee is compared to other organizations.”
Wolf said the committee’s small staff is inadequate compared to 92 employees working in the Inspector General’s office, 50 Joint Commission on Public Ethics Employees and 11 workers in the Authorities Budget Office.
Bewlay touted recent department hires, saying staff was increased by 66%.
“As soon I began in this role, I undertook an assessment of the needs of the team and how the Department of State could best serve its role as secretariat to the committee as described in the Public Officers Law,” Bewlay said. “Once completed, I reviewed the assessment, which called for the addition of legal staff, with the department and the department agreed with my assessment. At its September 2021 meeting, I reported to the committee that two attorneys had been added to the team, doubling our legal staff and increasing overall staff by 66%.
“Throughout this extraordinary public health emergency over the past year and half, I am pleased to report that my team has remained fully engaged and has continued to offer daily guidance and legal advice, prepare written legal advisory opinions, and deliver training to all interested people and groups,” she added. “All staff are providing all of the work product and training that their positions call for.”
Representatives from the governor’s office did not answer questions about the governor’s position on changing Committee on Open Government leadership, its board structure or how the governor will uphold her promise to run a transparent administration and state government.
“Gov. Hochul is committed to transparency and restoring trust in government,” Haley Viccaro, Hochul’s senior adviser for communications, said in a statement Wednesday. “We are exploring all ways to prioritize open, ethical governing.”
Since before her Aug. 24 inauguration, Hochul has asked for 45 days to evaluate state employees and assemble her administration.
“Things will continue to be evaluated beyond 45 days as well,” Viccaro said.
In her inauguration speech, Hochul promised streamlined responses to FOIL requests and for each state department to publicize the requested public records.