WATERTOWN — Writing about freedom of information and open meeting issues can be tricky for journalists.
Federal and state laws mandating government transparency are routinely violated by public officials. This puts their constituents at a great disadvantage by keeping key documents locked up and concealing what’s going on behind closed doors.
Using the state Freedom of Information and Open Meetings provisions (also called sunshine laws) benefits those of us in the news industry. Since it’s our business to publish and broadcast accounts of how governments operate and what records they’ve collected, it’s essential that we maintain access.
But members of the press aren’t on everyone’s Christmas card lists these days. So when we raise a stink about FOIL and OML violations, many people roll their eyes. The thought bubble that appears above their heads reads: “OK, so it’s harder for you to do your jobs. What else is new?”
While I understand this sentiment, it overlooks three important factors:
n Even if you’re not a fan of those of us in the news industry, we still serve a crucial role in keeping an eye on government authorities and chronicling what they’re doing. Since most people don’t attend public meetings or delve into public records themselves, what we report is the only information many individuals will obtain about issues that affect them.
n No one should give elected officials a pass when they violate any federal and state statutes, including sunshine laws. Criticizing journalists for the poor job we do all too often is one thing. But the notion that those who swore to uphold the law routinely break it is never acceptable, regardless of whether it inconveniences your perceived adversaries.
n Members of the news media aren’t the only ones who depend on sunshine laws to provide critical information to the public. Private organizations use them to carry out their responsibilities, and this benefits our society as a whole.
This last point is essential. While there are many groups that use these laws to conduct their work, a few are worth highlighting.
The Williamsville-based New York Coalition for Open Government scrutinizes how local public bodies operate. It then issues reports assessing how well or poorly these entities are adhering to the state’s FOIL and OML.
The Watertown Daily Times recently published stories on this group’s work when it involves local governments abiding by the state’s OML. It’s good to know what our public officials are doing well and where they can improve.
The Empire Center for Public Policy, a think tank based in Albany, made headlines over the past year for its use of the state’s FOIL. Bill Hammond, the organization’s senior fellow for health policy, has done some exceptional work analyzing how the Cuomo administration documented the deaths of nursing home residents from COVID-19.
The state Department of Health stonewalled the Empire Center for months on data it requested on the complete statistics pertaining to these fatalities. Represented by the Government Justice Center, the center sued the state DOH in September for violating the state’s FOIL. In a news release issued Sept. 18, Hammond made the argument about why the group’s FOIL request is essential for understanding what’s going on.
“The novel coronavirus caught New York unprepared and hit the state more severely than almost anywhere in the world,” Hammond said. “This case isn’t about assigning blame or embarrassing political leaders. It’s about gaining a full and accurate understanding of what happened, which is crucial to improving our defenses against the next pandemic.”
Tim Hoefer, president of the Empire Center, reiterated the value of the state’s sunshine laws for allowing people to grasp the dynamics of this health care crisis.
“There’s no excuse for refusing to release these records immediately,” he said in the news release. “The Health Department should have released them on its own months ago, given how serious this issue is. The Freedom of Information Law was written specifically to let New Yorkers see what their government is doing without having to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit. It should never take a lawsuit to get the government to obey it.”
State Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor ruled in the Empire Center’s favor last month, ordering the state agency to turn over the requested documents within a designated time frame. The numbers showed that the Cuomo administration had improperly categorized the COVID-19 deaths of numerous nursing home residents.
This was done, many of the administration’s critics believe, to mislead the public about the extent of the problem caused by long-term care facilities being pressured by the state last year to readmit residents who had been hospitalized for COVID-19. Once the Empire Center had the records it had requested, further analysis revealed a correlation between readmitting these residents and additional cases of coronavirus infection at specific nursing homes. This raises serious questions about the policy the state DOH enacted last year as well as the state Legislature granting immunity to these facilities for the consequences that were bound to occur.
Last week was Sunshine Week, a time to reflect on the way that the FOIL and OML affect how we practice democracy. But these statutes remain vital to all of us every day, so let’s continue pushing our elected officials to adhere to them.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.