Senate Majority Passes "Sunshine" Legislation To Hold Government Accountable

 

“Sunshine” Package Passes, Further Opens Legislative Process to Public

The New York State Democratic Majority took another step forward today in lifting the veil on state government records by passing a package of four Sunshine Policy bills which reform the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and state Open Meetings Law. The package is designed to provide the public with greater access to information about State government as well as easier access to programs, processes and overall governmental activity.

In the past 15 months the Senate Democratic Majority has implemented unprecedented transparency of legislative activity through the Senate’s “Sunshine Policy.” Prior to the Senate rules that were adopted in July 2009, which were strongly recommended by Senator David J. Valesky (D-Oneida) as co-Chair of the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform, records that are now published by the Senate were only available to the public by a freedom of information request or paid subscription.

Bills in this package:

·         S4284 / Valesky, requires open meetings to be held in a room of adequate size for citizens and officials to attend.

·         S3195B / Valesky, allows any meeting of a public body to be recorded, broadcast, webcast and photographed as long as it is not disruptive to the proceedings of the meeting.

·         S7109 / L. Krueger, requires each agency and house of the legislature to publish frequently requested records on its internet website.

·         S7054 / Oppenheimer, clarifies the court's authority to invalidate an action taken when the public body acted in violation of the Open Meetings Law.

An essential aspect of the democratic process is keeping society informed of the deliberations and decisions made by policymakers, which the Senate Sunshine Policies attempt to achieve. New Senate rules require all legislative records to be published on the Senate website, including committee and chamber votes, chamber transcripts, active lists, and bi-weekly payroll and semi-annual expenditure reports. The Rules also stipulate that all Senate chamber proceedings, committee meetings and hearings are to be video recorded and archived on the Senate website for the public to access (nysenate.gov/video_archives).

Moreover, an easily searchable database on the Senate website (nysenate.gov/open) allows the public to sort through records of committees and chamber actions. The Senate Democrats recently began publishing payroll reports, making them readily available to the public (nysenate.gov/opendata); the Senate is one of the few, if not the only, government entity which does this.

“We have made great strides in the Senate in the last two years to draw back the curtain on both Senate and other governmental operations,” Senator Valesky said, adding “ because a transparent and accountable government is a responsive and responsible government.”

"Over the last year, the Senate has dramatically increased the amount of information it provides to the public on its website," said Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan).  "The legislation we passed today will build on this new transparency and improve public access to information throughout state government."

"My legislation promotes public access to government decisions by making clear that a court may invalidate an action taken in violation of the open meetings law.” Senator Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Mamaroneck) said. “Where appropriate, a court may also require training in the requirements of the open meetings law. By strengthening the court's remedies, this bill will encourage openness and greater public participation in government decision-making."

"To protect the rights of our constituents it is imperative that there be openness in the lawmaking process. Modern technology gives us a spectacular opportunity to engage those who would otherwise have no way of coming across specific information as to when and where public meetings take place,” said Senator Jose M. Serrano (D-Bronx/Manhattan). “New Yorkers want transparency from their elected officials, and this legislation is an important step to opening the lines of communication between the public and their government."

Strengthening the Open Meetings Law/ S4284, S3195B & S7054

The New York State Open Meetings Law allows citizens to observe their elected officials during public meetings pertaining to the decision-making process. The law does not specify that the rooms where these meetings are being held must be an adequate size for citizens and officials to attend, however, making it possible for the law to be observed while simultaneously shutting out those who wish to attend. Legislation, S4284, sponsored by Senator Valesky would explicitly require the meeting room to be large enough to accommodate possible attendees and therefore making these meetings truly open.

For over three decades the proceedings of public bodies have been open to the public, however, advances in technology have now made it possible to record and broadcast these meetings without being disruptive. Senator Valesky’s bill, S3195B, would allow any meeting of a public body to be recorded, broadcast, webcast and photographed as long as it is not disruptive to the proceedings of the meeting.

Under legislation sponsored by Senator Oppenheimer, S7054, the Open Meetings Law is amended to allow the court’s authority to invalidate action taken behind closed doors for the purpose of discussion only.  This law requires members of the public body to attend a training session concerning the obligations of the open meetings law. This bill ensures that the government remains open and transparent to the public. 

Strengthening FOIL by Proactively Publishing Information / S7109

Sponsored by Senator Krueger, Chair of the Budget and Tax Reform Committee, this legislation would require each agency and house of the legislature to proactively publish frequently requested records on its internet website. By providing frequently requested information on their websites agencies can direct individuals requesting information to their websites instead of sending hard copies, making the process quicker and more efficient.