Local group reports on open government during Sunshine Week

Benjamin Joe/contributorMembers of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition on Open Government held a press conference in Williamsville earlier this week to discuss their latest findings on the availability of public information on governmental websites in Erie and Niagara counties.

WILLIAMSVILLE — The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government decided to celebrate Sunshine Week by releasing two different reports on the condition of websites overseen by local municipalities and public authorities.

The websites were graded on factors like timely posting of meeting agendas and minutes, placement of Freedom of Information data on home pages and the availability of financial disclosure forms for elected officials online.

“Last year, when we evaluated those 16 local governments, 90 percent received a failing grade. Only two received a passing grade,” coalition President Paul Wolf said.

Wolf said the numbers improved slightly this year, with 10 local governments receiving failing grades. He believes the coalition's work in keeping track of public government's websites and availability of information may have played a role.

“We don’t want to put out reports to put out reports," Wolf said. "We want change to happen. That’s why we’re doing this. So, it’s good to see that some local governments are listening, trying. We hope there will be more progress.”

The reports centered around “very basic things” according to Wolf, but Bob Freeman, the executive director for New York state's Committee on Open Government said, under the law, they are not required.

“I’ve been in contact with Paul Wolf and I’ve had to suggest that what he wants and the law is different,” Freeman said. Freeman takes an example of the grade given for posting the meeting agenda online. He said municipalities are not required to even have an agenda, and to be graded for not having one posted is of questionable benefit.

“There’s nothing magical about an agenda,” Freeman said.

While this is true, the state open government committee has recommended legislation to require municipalities and authorities to post records online as part of its annual report in December 2017. Freeman said he supports the recommendation and stands behind the idea that, if practicable, records should be released to the public.

“I think it’s good for society,” Freeman said. “If you can, you must.”

Karen McMahon, who is running for the New York Assembly 146th District seat, said she supports the effort. 

“I think that government works best when people can trust the institutions,” McMahon said. “So, I commend this coalition for their work, and I hope the agencies and government bodies that got their scores, take it to heart.”

Lewiston Town Supervisor Steve Broderick, who was reached for comment after the press conference, noted that while his municipality failed the report, it was about seven points closer to passing. He said recent changes in an effort to promote more public access to information in Lewiston were not made with the report in mind, but said the coalition's criticism was welcome. In any case, the town moved up to 10th place of the 16 local governments from 13th place a year ago.

“I’ll be honest with you, it wasn’t intentional, some of the stuff (we’ve done) is what some of the people who speak at our board meetings about that we’ve incorporated,” Broderick said, referring to recommendations made by the local group, the Lewiston Taxpayers Accountability & Action Alliance. “I’m glad they’re actually videotaping and putting them (recordings of board meetings) online."

The town is also currently making arrangements to incorporate camera equipment into its board room.

Broderick also said that the NotifyMe link that residents could sign on and then receive emails was something he thought should be implemented, though he said it could also be used in case of road closures as well. 

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Broderick said. “There are some things, I think, the board should discuss in an open meeting before it’s provided on our website. Not everything, but some things I think should. Contracts, I think should be discussed in a board meeting before they’re put on the website. Not everything should be put on the website. The stuff that we can, we will be put on there… we’ll do our best, we’re not trying to hide from anybody.”

For more information on the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government and to view the group's reports, visit www.nyopengov.org

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