EDITORIAL: They’ve got a secret

SECRETS HAVE TAKEN A BEATING lately, what with the Wikileaks disclosures about the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq followed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s files that reveal how few secrets we can keep from our super-snooper government.

Our military and government spy agencies are in the business of collecting information about potential threats, so it’s probably inevitable that they sometimes overstep their bounds with surveillance, treating us all as suspects first and citizens second.

But government secrecy isn’t just about spy agencies. Sometimes it’s about civilian bureaucracy hoarding information or trying to avoid public criticism. Consider the run-up to the Affordable Care Act launch, a time during which the Obama administration reportedly kept key parts of the ACA website development secret. That approach thwarted the type of problem solving that might have identified and addressed the website’s weaknesses.

The debate over the start-up of a national health insurance program is remote from daily life around here. New York was better prepared than other states for the advent of Obamacare, with a state healthcare exchange and a tradition of expanding healthcare options. Columbia County also has a relatively high percentage of people who don’t need the ACA–we’re on Medicare. But we would do well to keep in mind that we pay a high price for government’s determination to keep us in the dark.

Keeping secrets from the public that the people have a right to know is practiced at all levels of government. In Albany the leaders of the Assembly and state Senate don’t want their constituents know how much outside money lawmakers earn and who’s giving it to them. This mostly applies to the lawyers who hold office and retain private practices, but the lack of transparency about donors is a continuing cloud over all those who make our state laws and levy state taxes.

County and local governments don’t escape criticism, either. Recently activists seeking more information about plans to expand the Columbia County Airport had to file suit against the county in an effort to see documents related to a large expenditure of public funds and the county’s decision to take private property near the runway by the power of eminent domain.

Towns and school districts also put up needless and often improper roadblocks to the public’s right to know, starting with the use of the term “personnel matter” to justify all kinds of private meetings called executive sessions.

This state has both a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and an Open Meetings Law, which give citizens the right to access many public records and to observe the conduct of elected and appointed government bodies. The laws make common-sense exceptions, especially where individuals have a right to privacy (a whole other issue) about their employment status or their credit history. There are also exemptions having to do with certain real estate negotiations, for consultations with a lawyer over litigation and, naturally, where public safety would be compromised.

But too often these exceptions are viewed by officeholders as license to operate beyond the view of the public. The Open Meetings and FOIL laws let citizens act to prevent that type of hidden government. Among other requirements, the laws set deadlines governing how long a government agency can stonewall a request for records. An agency has five business days to determine whether it will comply with a request for records, although the agency can also request an extension. All of this and more is online at the New York State Department of State Committee on Open Government website, www.dos.ny.gov/coog/index.html.

President Obama promised voters the most open and transparent administration ever. Instead, he has instituted policies that in some cases are even more secretive than those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. That’s not a great legacy.

It’s still possible the screw-ups that have marred the introduction of the ACA will be resolved and the program will achieve its goals. In that case the sneaky aspects of its origins won’t matter much. But in the longer term, hiding the functions of government from public view corrodes democracy. That’s a worse legacy for any politician or bureaucrat, from the president down to county, town and school district officials.

Government conducts the public’s business. The people have a right judge for themselves whether that’s what we want. Officials who resist sharing government records can live in fear that whistleblowers will expose their mistakes. Or they can act on the knowledge that it’s easier not to keep so many secrets in the first place.

 

 

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