Around this time last year, we editorialized on the need for more transparency in government to guard against corruption and restore citizens’ faith in our democracy. We envisioned reforms like public campaign financing, open primaries and appointments to local election boards based on merit, not patronage. Unfortunately, there has been little movement so far on these and other ideas that we suggested.
We could not have predicted, however, that a few weeks after our editorial was published, Edward Snowden would singlehandedly jump-start the debate on government secrecy by leaking a trove of classified materials about electronic spying by the National Security Agency.
Most people aren’t in a position to blow the lid on top-secret government programs, but every one of us can play a role, within the confines of the law, in keeping government honest and accountable. Do you want to know what your local school district, library, fire department or sewer board is doing with the tax dollars it collects? Do you want to know what companies are doing business with your village or town? How about the state’s analysis of the health dangers posed by that brownfield site near your neighborhood?
Thanks to New York’s open records law, all you need to do in any of these instances is ask. The breadth of the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, is quite remarkable. It dictates that “any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for … [a state] agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever,” is a public document, which members of the public must be able to access. There are some exceptions — if the disclosure would be an “unwarranted invasion” of someone’s privacy, reveal trade secrets or interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings, for example — but the onus is on any state body that denies a request for its records to explain why.
People can make record requests in writing to any government body in New York. Information about how the FOIL works, including answers to frequently asked questions and educational videos, can be found on the website of the New York State Committee on Open Government, www.dos.ny.gov/coog.