Do the Write Thing

Open government should be the norm

The term open government is a crock. If you’re not an open government, or striving to be as open as possible, you’re a closed government. Closed governments aren’t for the people.

It’s yet to be seen whether “open government” is the 2012 catchphrase for local politics or if it’s an actual goal, but local governments are jumping on the transparency bandwagon left and right. That makes me a happy reporter, but more importantly, a happy citizen.

Open governments are clean governments; clean governments make for efficient, effective governing. The less time spent on scandal, or he-said, she-saids, the more time can be spent on bettering the community. It’s not rocket science.

To take that a step further, new amendments to the open meetings law are just adding on to a municipality’s responsibility to be open.

New York state open meetings law now requires, effective Feb. 2, that all documents a board is discussing be made available prior to the board meeting. That means agendas shouldn’t be, and going forward likely will not be, one page. Any documents the board will reference, such as a resolution, law, regulation, policy or presentation, is to be made public prior to the meeting. Anything that would be required to be made available through Freedom of Information Law requests should be open for viewing or copies in a “practicable” time period. Not sure what practicable means, but my interpretation says a day or so.

I was at a board meeting this week and as I raced to write down each minute detail from a PowerPoint presentation, I thought how wonderful it would be if it were a requirement for these documents to be placed online. We can often ask to have forms emailed to us, or begrudgingly have them faxed to the office, but I thought how easy it would be for me to have the information online, readily available for whatever hour, day or night that I decide to write the week’s news.

But having information isn’t just beneficial to journalists. The average citizen doesn’t have 40 hours or more a week to comb through board minutes, agendas, presentations and resolutions. The average resident sometimes stops caring because agendas are written in agenda-language — it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend and agendas often reference mythical documents that never make an appearance. This law will help with that. This law will help us citizens have the option to become more involved.

Fortunately, the law suggests the documents be placed on the website, should the town or village have an operational website. Though I’m not sure why a municipality wouldn’t have an operational website in 2012, it happens. They’re allowed to slide by in a loophole.

Some may cry foul because it’s an unfunded mandate — the government has tried to address that by saying this law should cost no, or little, municipality funds. But in reality, open government shouldn’t be a mandate at all, unfunded or not. It should be a natural process and a natural beginning for communications with the people — you know, the people who pay taxes and put representatives in office.


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