The FOIL is a critically important tool that anyone can use to uncover the actions and decision-making of our representatives in government, but there is still room for improvement.
The most glaring deficiency in the law is its lack of enforcement. Too often, the only way to get an agency to comply is by suing it, and the cost of a lawsuit is prohibitive. All too often, agency employees with no special training who interact with the public reflexively block information requests rather than risk getting in trouble with superiors for releasing the information.
The State Legislature needs to address this problem to help the FOIL live up to its stated creed: “A free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a step in the right direction last year by launching www.open.ny.gov
, a website that offers thousands of searchable records — food safety inspections, doctors’ disciplinary histories, SUNY graduation rates, state budget documents and much more. Cuomo’s statement at a recent budget-related press conference, however, that “just because something is done behind closed doors doesn’t mean the process isn’t transparent,” was disconcerting. Time will tell if the state continues to update and expand open.ny.gov.
You don’t need to have Snowden’s computer hacking skills — or his willingness to throw away his career and citizenship — in order to effect change. You can make a difference by asking hard-hitting questions at a school board meeting, starting a petition drive to amend a local ordinance or tipping off a newspaper about public corruption. The law says that information belongs to the people. We encourage your participation in what Abraham Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”