This is Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of free press and open government. As a way to shine the light brighter, a New York State assemblymember from the Hudson Valley has introduced two bills to amend the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law.
The New York Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to transparency in government, celebrated Sunshine Week, in part, by recognizing National Freedom of Information Day, March 16. Democratic Assemblymember Amy Paulin of Scarsdale joined a virtual press conference the day before.
“It’s time has come,” says Paulin. “There’s no question that during this pandemic everyone has learned to adjust and to do things differently, and what we’re changing is a reflection of that.”
What she’s hoping to change in Open Meetings law is deleting a certain phrase, and requiring that meeting documents be posted in a defined manner and timeframe.
“I had done the original law that required documents to be made available to the public, and we had put in a phrase “to the extent practicable” because when, which I honestly in the beginning didn’t even want, but I was persuaded that there might be times where the documents might be too big or they were achieved last minute or what have you, so that it really was a phrase that was needed in order to accommodate practically what was happening,” Paulin says. “And instead, it’s been used as a way to evade the law.”
Her legislation would remove this phrase in most instances as well as require meeting documents to be posted online at least 24 hours before a meeting. The meeting also must be streamed on the meeting body’s website, to the extent practicable. And meeting video must be posted within five business days of the meeting, with recordings maintained for at least five years. Paulin says that currently, Industrial Development Agencies are required to livestream their meetings and post video recordings of their meetings online but other public bodies are not required to do so.
Paul Wolf is president of the New York Coalition for Open Government.
“We just recently released a report regarding villages across New York state, where we took a look at 20 villages,” Wolf says. “And we found in that report that 70% are not posting their meeting documents online, and that’s just a huge problem with informing the public.”
Wolf’s group issued a report last year for towns and cities, and found 20% did not post their meeting documents, while a 2019 study found 40% of school boards were not posting these documents.
“With the pandemic, the governor’s emergency order has mandated that if a meeting, if a board is not meeting in public, they have to livestream the meeting and post a video of the meeting afterwards,” says Wolf, “and this has been huge for the public.”
He says virtual meetings are drawing larger audiences than pre-pandemic, in-person meetings.
“In Buffalo, 18,000 people recently viewed a city council meeting through Facebook,” says Wolf. “In the city of Ogdensburg, which has a population up north of 10,000, 3,000 signed on to watch a city council meeting.”
Paulin’s other bill would eliminate fees for obtaining records through a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request when an electronic copy already exists. She says current law allows government officials to charge a per page copying fee. Today, many records are available in an electronic format and can be provided without the need to make photocopies.
Wolf points out that March 16 is also James Madison’s birthday, the fourth U.S. president and advocate for open government.
“Hopefully, in the future, we will do both,” Wolf says. “We will have in-person meetings, but the meeting will be livestreamed, it will be recorded and posted online. So that way, you can watch it at a later time.”
Nassau County Democrat Anna Kaplan sponsors both of Paulin’s bills in the Senate and Paulin, of the 88th District, has the same four co-sponsors for each bill, including Democrat Sandy Galef, whose 95th District includes part of Putnam County and part of northern Westchester.