Gov. Kathy Hochul signed two pieces of legislation Tuesday to expand transparency in government and ensure an open process at the state and local levels, including a significant amendment to the state’s Open Meetings Law. This is a small but important victory for champions of unfettered public access to information.
The key bill Hochul signed into law requires documents that will be discussed at open meetings to be made available at least 24 hours beforehand. Under the new law, documents that will be discussed at all public municipal meetings and any proposed resolution, law, rule, regulation, policy or amendment must be made available to the public on request or posted on the government entity’s website at least 24 hours in advance of the start of the meeting.
The state Open Meetings Law requires meeting documents to be posted online “to the extent practicable” and as “determined by the agency,” which watchdog groups such as the Coalition for Open Government has rightly criticized as too vague and too easy for government entities to abuse. In a wise move, the phrase “determined by the agency” was deleted from the new law.
The difference a few words makes is significant. The law is a potentially strong, impenetrable defense against government entities that value circumspection over candor.
There is no valid, justifiable reason a government entity with a website can’t scan and post online the board member packet for public meetings. Posting documents 24 hours before a meeting is a step forward, but it can’t be the last step. We shouldn’t be forced to accept further manipulations by government to shut the public out of information access. We have a right to know what our government entities are doing. This law gives us time to look for ourselves.