New Yorkers, faced with inevitable sacrifices as leaders wrestle with the incredible, growing budget deficit, may not feel like they have much to celebrate. But there is a bright spot among all the pronouncements of fiscal doom and gloom.
State residents have greater-than-ever access to information that lets them in on what government is up to and how much those activities are costing taxpayers.
Gov. David Paterson recently signed legislation that would expand the scope of the Freedom of Information Law, which allows citizens to petition for information about government agencies and their activities, and the Open Meetings Law, which requires that government meetings be open to the public.
Citizens have long been able to sue when government entities violated their rights to obtain public information, but they had to pay their own legal fees. It’s doubtful that many people would choose to incur the cost of suing the violators.
Thanks to the expanded legislation, citizens who are illegally denied access to meetings or documents can recoup their legal fees from the violators.
There are other bright spots as well.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s Project Sunlight Web site (www.sunlightny.com) provides easy access to information on a variety of subjects of interest to the public — from chronicling the activities of lobbyists to reporting on the status of legislation. One of the best morsels is the detailed information provided about “member items” — also known as pork barrel projects. They are the pet projects of state legislators and the governor that get funded — to the tune of $200 million a year — and are awarded based on party status and loyalty, rather than demonstrated need.
Cuomo has been on a mission to provide more transparency about member items and to make sure they serve a public purpose. He recently rejected several member item requests, including a $5,000 walk-in refrigerator for the Massapequa Elks Lodge. Last week he began putting detailed information about his office’s review of the projects on the site — a process that will take weeks.
Keeping in the spirit of transparency, the Empire Center for Public Policy recently established www.seethroughny.com, which lists everything from state payrolls to public contracts for users’ perusal.
All of these tools enhance the public’s right to know what its government is up to. In these financially challenging days, such information is critical to ensure that public officials are spending taxpayers’ money fairly and wisely.
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