To start the holiday season off on a cheery note, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday presented his constituents with an early gift.

He (finally!) signed a bill limiting the amount of time government officials have to appeal certain judicial rulings against them for violating the state’s Freedom of Information Law. The legislation dramatically shortens the period for municipal authorities to comply with court orders to release public records subject to FOIL.

“Government agencies now have nine months to appeal a judge’s order — meaning they can wait for the equivalent of a full human gestation period, and then either seek to overturn the order in a higher court or release the records anyway,” according to an article by Kenneth Girardin published Tuesday on the website for the Empire Center for Public Policy, a think tank in Albany. “Under the new law sponsored by Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer and Assemblyman David Buchwald, that time period will now be limited to 60 days. The ability to get this data in a timely manner can have serious consequences for people and businesses battling government agencies such as Empire Wine, an Albany-area liquor store that used FOIL to show the state Liquor Authority was encouraging other states’ regulators to harass the company.”

Mr. Cuomo vetoed a similar bill last year, reasoning that the state Legislature also should be subject to FOIL. He indicated that he wanted to wait for a stronger FOIL bill before signing anything into law.

We wholeheartedly agree with the governor’s desire to enhance FOIL, which would allow state residents a more effective way to monitor the activities of all levels of government. But as the article published by the Empire Center explains, that wasn’t a valid enough reason for him to thwart other measures last year.

Accessing public records in a timely manner is essential for citizens to provide the necessary oversight of government operations. Louis Brandeis, who served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, once brilliantly clarified the effect of public scrutiny on people’s actions by declaring that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants …”

Forcing constituents to wait up to nine months for public documents is a way for many government officials to circumvent transparency. By the time the nine months is up, the issue at stake in the FOIL request may be beyond resolution. Or a public agency could suddenly announce that it intends to appeal the judicial order to release the records, prolonging the process even further.

It’s very good news that the state Legislature once again sent Mr. Cuomo a bill putting more teeth into FOIL, and he was wise to sign it this time around. Now let’s push for lawmakers in Albany to put themselves under FOIL’s provisions.

But this enhanced mechanism for monitoring government actions is only effective if people make use of it. Elected officials work for us, and shining light on records produced from their decisions is meaningless if residents ignore what’s there. Good government is possible only when people demand it, and we now have a better mechanism for making this happen.

© 2016 Watertown Daily Times

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