SYRACUSE “Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote those words in a 1913 Harper’s Weekly article entitled “What Publicity Can Do” to emphasize the importance of government openness and transparency.
Nearly a century later, how far have we come?
New York’s efforts to make government more open and accessible to its people are certainly laudable. We have a comprehensive Open Meetings Law that demands public access to municipal boards and whole catalogs of information relating thereto. We have an extensive Freedom of Information Law that orders our municipal bodies to provide the populace with the ability to secure a multitude of records of public import. We even have a committee — the New York State Committee on Open Government, headed by Bob Freeman — dedicated to ensuring that these rules are followed.
What New York state lacks, however, is any kind of teeth to these laws and regulations. If a public official or public body fails to adhere to the Open Meetings Law or the Freedom of Information Law, there are no binding consequences — no punishments, no fines, nothing. It doesn’t exactly compel municipalities to follow the law.
So how can we keep public boards in line? We, as the press and as individuals, act as watchdogs. We observe events like Sunshine Week and we talk about open government. We attend meetings. We keep up on changes in the Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law, and we make sure our elected officials do, as well.
It’s up to us to ensure that the sun shines on whatever corruption may exist in our corner of the world so that it may be disinfected, as Brandeis would have wanted.