ALBANY — For the last three decades, all public entities in New York — governments, school districts, authorities, and others — have been subject to the Freedom of Information Law, which mandates that they release public data on request.
Yet taxpayers seeking information on how their money is spent are still too often faced with stonewalling, excuses and delays. Or they get the information in a form that can be difficult to decipher.
Those days are over. On Thursday, the Empire Center for Public Policy unveiled its new Web site, SeeThroughNY.net.
“Taxpayers have a fundamental right to know how their money is spent,” said Edmund J. McMahon, the center’s director. “This site empowers New Yorkers to have a greater and more knowledgeable say in how government operates. Government administrators have no right to deny anybody this information.”
The new site currently features these searchable databases:
■ State payroll: A complete listing of 263,000 state employees, searchable by name, title, agency and branch of government.
■ Contracts: Teachers union and superintendent contracts from almost all of the state’s 735 school and BOCES districts.
■ Expenditures: Operating expenditures from both houses of the state Legislature.
■ Pork: Legislators’ “member items” spending for 2008-09.
And that’s just the beginning.
The Empire Center plans to expand the site to include a host of payroll, contract, expenditure and other data from all levels of government, as well as from commissions, authorities and school districts around the state. With a dozen more FOIL requests in the works, the current site is only a framework, Mr. McMahon said.
The site’s “see through” name is meant to inspire a sense of transparency.
“The implication of the title is that government is not ‘see-through,'” he said. “It’s opaque, dark and dim. We want to make it transparent.”
The site will not present opinion, analysis or spin, only data.
“This is a glimpse of the way things should be,” he said. “It’s a start.”
Reaction from good-government advocates was enthusiastic.
“Thirty years ago, ‘high-tech’ meant electric typewriters and carbon paper,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. “Nobody could have envisioned the technology to acquire this information at our fingertips. This is a treasure trove of information on how public money is spent.”
Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, anticipates more accessible and responsible local government as a result of SeeThoughNY.net.
“We’re going to see, I hope, a very rich debate about how governments spend taxpayer money,” she said. “I think there will be far more pressure by local citizens to make their local entities more responsive. We’ve been looking for this for a long time.”
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