Making public records public is not difficult. Yet many local governments on Long Island make getting such records cumbersome, and sometimes impossible, to obtain.
The need for the public and journalists, on their behalf, to learn how their taxpayer dollars are being used and whether their public officials are honestly carrying out their duties is even more important in an era of “fake news.” A new ad campaign by a consortium of media organizations, including Newsday, is reinforcing the need for investigative journalism and “real news.”
In New York, the Freedom of Information Law is clear. The assumption is that access to government records, from payrolls to contracts to public safety and education databases, should be provided to anyone who asks. There are limited reasons for denial and required timetables for the governments’ responses to such requests.
However, in a recent audit, the Press Club of Long Island found that county, town and village governments too often didn’t follow the law, sometimes by not meeting deadlines to fulfill requests, sometimes by not providing the requested information. More than half of them didn’t have information on their website to inform the public on the process of requesting records. And many municipalities provide records on paper, when they should be available electronically.
Following the law is not optional. The cooperative release of information should be the norm. The only way for journalists to report “real news,” and for taxpayers to hold their representatives accountable, is by embracing open government. Pull the curtain back, open the files and let the public in.— The editorial board