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Editorial

State needs public-hearings overhaul

Posted

Amid all the clamor over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s alleged sexual harassment and misreporting of nursing home deaths during the coronavirus crisis last spring, you would have thought nothing else was happening in Albany at the moment. You would be wrong.

Last week, the State Senate passed a critical piece of legislation to encourage public participation in the rule-making in six key state departments — Education, Environmental Conservation, Health, Financial Services, Labor and Family Assistance. The measure, if passed by the Assembly and signed by Cuomo, would create a three-year pilot program that would require public hearings on an issue any time 125 or more residents petitioned the state government for them.

Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, sponsored the bill.

The measure is vitally needed. Requiring hearings when the people ask for them would shift power into their hands. Until now, the state has controlled when — and if — are held.

Six other states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Illinois, New Hampshire and Utah — require hearings when a critical mass of people request them. New York should do the same.

“The Covid-19 pandemic taught us the crucial importance of transparency in government,” Gianaris said. “We should live up to our progressive ideals and make our government truly accessible to the people it serves.”

We couldn’t have said it better, Senator.

If such a law had been in place last year, people who were angered and worried by the apparent undercount of nursing home deaths as the pandemic spread could have forced Health Department hearings that might have brought alleged under-reporting to light sooner.

The scandal has tainted Cuomo’s otherwise sound performance in the early days of the pandemic, when many touted him as a national hero for his daily briefings, based largely on data. If he were smart, he would support Gianaris’s legislation to show that he does, in fact, support government transparency.

Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, a Democrat from Queens, is sponsoring a companion bill in the Assembly. “Creating a program through which members of the public can demand a hearing reminds rule-makers that they are ultimately accountable to the people,” Mamdani said. Agreed.

The legislation would also require public hearings to be held on evenings and weekends, so more people could attend. It would mandate that hearings be broadcast, and that teleconferencing be available. Finally, it would require that time be set aside during the hearings for public questioning of department personnel.

The Senate passed the measure during Sunshine Week, March 14 to 20, a celebration of the 1967 Freedom of Information Act, the landmark federal legislation requiring government officials to make their records available to the public. The American Society of News Editors created Sunshine Week in 2005 to remind people of the grave need for government transparency — even today, more than 50 years after FOIA was enacted.

The message that the Senate was seeking to project was clear: New York state needs to do more to open its government to public participation. Of that there is little doubt.