More information about what’s discussed at government meetings could be at the public’s fingertips under a recent change to New York’s open meetings law.
“The law catches up with technology,” said Roy Gutterman, journalism professor and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.
The law now requires government agencies with websites to post agendas and encourages governments to post records and supporting materials to be discussed at meetings. That change gives the public more leverage to get government to post more information on the web.
Local officials say they are proud of the openness of government here. But journalists argue that some more use of the web for government documents does not alleviate problems with the free flow of information.
The changes were enacted by the state legislature, signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and went into effect on Feb. 22. In part, the revised law says: “If the agency in which a public body functions maintains a regularly and routinely updated website and utilizes a high speed internet connection, such records shall be posted on the website to the extent practicable as determined by the agency or the department, prior to the meeting.”
On behalf of the city of Syracuse, attorney Joe Barry has worked on Freedom of Information Act requests and other open-government policies for 18 years. Barry has watched the city operate from early days of email to today’s Facebook presence for the Syracuse Police Department.
“For the last several years, we’ve been posting the agendas on the website for the public to see,” Barry said. But supporting documents for agenda items won’t go up yet, Barry said, because it’s time-consuming to post them. Instead, the city will comply with the law by making those materials available on request.
For their part, local journalists would like even more openness for the public.
The city and county generally comply with the law, said Chris Bolt, news director of the National Public Radio affiliate WAER in Syracuse, but not always with warmth and welcomeness. The government’s attitude toward freedom of information requests, he said, can make getting the information tedious.
“It not against the letter of the law, it seems to be against the spirit of the law,” Bolt said “All this stuff — virtually everything — is about my money or how you’re conducting my public business or how you’re governing or regulating my world. Save a privacy concern, why shouldn’t I be able to find that out? You should always be able to ask.”
If government makes it difficult, Bolt, said, citizens stop asking for information — an attitude Bolt calls “learned helplessness.”
Stan Linhorst, senior managing editor for The Post-Standard, praised the revised law’s help for getting supporting information. But he cautions that technology can also give government more ways to create confusion and even fear.
“Digital media have enormous opportunity to be tremendously open, but just like any communication tool, can be used for furthering propaganda, pulling the wool over people’s eyes and dividing people,” said Linhorst. “It’s easier to create spin. It’s easier to take information and shade it in any way and it’s easier to communicate with an audience in a way that plays on their fears.”
On the other hand, Linhorst credited the city’s transparency online for jumpstarting an investigative series that The Post-Standard began in 2006 on Empire Zones. The reporters used Freedom of Information requests to get some information. And they analyzed website data to reveal the tax breaks to companies in the Empire Zones had not yielded the promised jobs and help for the economy.
Technology can be an opportunity, said Linhorst. “What it allows government to do is keep citizens informed about the nuts and bolts of government,” he said. “If those could all be made available, that would be wonderful. I love that idea.”
(Julie McMahon is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)