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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau County contracting process still lacks transparency

They’re baaaack — and offering Nassau residents less information about public contracts than was available online before.

That’s not what should be happening in a county already under fire for moving too slowly to boost accountability and transparency in a contracting system marred by controversy.

In March, we learned that the clerk of the legislature had removed approved contracts from the county’s website — which had begun posting them only six months earlier.

The county began posting contracts again recently, but they contain significantly less information than those taken down last month.

Back then, officials said they wanted to ensure that Social Security numbers, which two vendors complained had been posted, remained private.

So the legislature, acting on the advice of County Attorney Carnell Foskey, pulled down the contracts until the legislature could devise a way to keep private information private.

Among Foskey’s recommendations, however, was the suggestion that county vendors create two sets of paperwork: One that redacted information vendors themselves deemed private, and another which disclosed the information.

If members of the public requested information about a contract under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, only the redacted version — the one where vendors, rather than the clerk of the legislature, blacked out information — would be released, according to a letter Foskey sent to vendors.

That’s a problem, Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, told Newsday’s Celeste Hadrick, because the county’s supposed to interpret FOIL. “You don’t leave it to private companies to make the decision,” he said. “The government makes that decision.”

Freeman’s suggestion?

The county should revise vendor forms so “that nothing is there that would be private under FOIL.”

Which would relieve vendors from having to file duplicate paperwork, and the clerks office from having to handle two versions of each contract.

But that’s not what Nassau’s doing, as a look through contracts posted in advance of Monday’s legislative meeting — the only ones now online — showed.

Some contracts redacted vendor ID numbers. The county allows vendors to use Social Security numbers as vendor IDs, but there’s no way to determine whether the blacked-out information contained Social Security numbers, or something else.

Some contracts redacted vendor addresses.

Some blacked out vendor telephone numbers.

Some blacked out both.

Others redacted information about company principals.

The online contracts did include the county’s new form that requires lobbyists to disclose their activities. And at least one contract noted that it was to go to the lowest bidder. Those were two good steps by Nassau, where contracts went frequently to vendors who weren’t the lowest bidder.

But there’s more to be done.

The county still has no independent contract monitor, which the head of a state control board overseeing Nassau finances and Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas have called for. And the legislature’s new online posting policy further obscures, rather than illuminates, what is going on.

Who is getting contracts?

Nassau’s taxpayers deserve to know as much now as they did six months ago. Simplify contracts so they do not include personal information.

That’s the way to go.

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