Committee on Open Govt Calls for 10 Upgrades to NY FOI Law

The New York State Committee on Open Government’s 2014 annual report is out, and is aptly called More to Be Done. The COOG is a government advisory panel mostly appointed by the governor, and directed by a full-time state employee, Robert Freeman. Freeman’s report includes numerous excellent recommendations, including two which we think are particularly important.

One major reform would require the government to pay attorney’s fees in certain cases when the member of the public wins a FOIL lawsuit – which seems to the be the overwhelming majority of the time. Currently, judges rarely award attorney’s fees, and the public is left with costly bills, even when agencies have flagrantly violated the Freedom of Information Law. As a result, most FOIL cases are never appealed and only journalists, businesses, and a handful of big advocacy groups can afford to appeal FOIL cases to a successful conclusion.

Freeman’s other major procedural reform is to require agencies to finalize their response to appeals within two months, instead of the current nine months.

List of FOIL Reforms Called for By Committee on Open Government

  • Repeal §50-a of the Civil Rights Law and Eliminate the FOIL Loophole for Police Records
  • The Governors of New York and New Jersey Should Sign Legislation to Make the Port
  • Authority Subject to Access Laws
  • Awards of Attorney’s Fees Should Be Mandatory in Certain Circumstances
  • FOIL Should Be Amended to Expedite Appeals
  • Proactive Disclosure Should Be Codified
  • FOIL Should Be Amended to Create a Presumption of Access to Records of the State Legislature
  • Commercial Enterprises Should Be Required to Renew Requests that Records be Kept Confidential
  • Once Disclosed to Public Employee Unions, Tentative Collective Bargaining Agreements Should Be Accessible
  • 911 Records Should Be Disclosed or Withheld Pursuant to FOIL
  • Civil Rights Law §50-b Should Be Amended to Clarify that Privacy of Victims of Sex Offenses, Not that of Defendants, is Protected
  •  The Reasonable Use of Cameras Should Be Authorized in Courtrooms

 

 

Silver Resignation is “Historic Moment” For Assembly to Enact Major Reforms

Hours before Sheldon Silver resigns as Speaker of the State Assembly, six government reform groups sent a an email to all members of the NYS Assembly calling on them to enact four basic reforms that will make the Assembly more transparent, participatory and democratic. Below is the email from the groups. Download a copy here.
sign ons

January 30, 2015
To: All members of NYS Assembly via Email
Re: Opportunity for Legislative Rules and Ethics Reform

Dear Assemblymember :

In the coming days, the Assembly faces a historic opportunity to create a more transparent, participatory and publicly deliberative process for making state policy. Backroom dealing and secrecy have become commonplace in the state’s capital, eroding public confidence and inviting cynicism. The best way to combat the public’s apathy is to demonstrate that there is a functioning legislative process that considers the voice of all members and the constituents they represent. The Assembly should therefore take concrete steps to overhaul the rules that keep it from functioning effectively as a legislative body, and make clear to New Yorkers that it is serious about enacting comprehensive and much-needed reforms to its ethics laws. These steps are important to turning around the public’s confidence in lawmaking and democracy.

Rules Reform

We urge Assemblymembers to seize this moment to demand four main changes to the way the Assembly operates: (1) increase the strength and efficiency of committees, so that they function fully and effectively; (2) provide greater opportunity for rank and file members to bring legislation with majority support to the floor, even over the objection of leadership; (3) institute more equitable allocation of resources between all members; and (4) increase transparency in the chamber.

More specifically, we strongly encourage you consider the following changes to the Assembly’s legislative procedures:

1. Increase the strength and efficiency of committees. In many state legislatures and in the United States Congress, committees function as the locus of legislative activity. In the New York State Assembly, the rules cede control over the committee process to the Speaker of the Assembly, which effectively strips committees of their chief legislative purpose. Committees can be strengthened by:

a. Giving each committee the power to hire and fire members of the committee staff, independently of leadership preferences;

b. Requiring a public reading and mark up process for bills before they can be passed through committee;

c. Requiring that all bills that pass out of committee include substantive reports (as they do in most state legislatures and Congress) that set forth the purpose of the bill, proposed changes to existing law, a section-by-section explanation of the bill, a cost-benefit-analysis, the bill’s procedural and voting history, and any individual members’ comments on the bill.

d. Clarifying the rule on petition for hearings, so that 1/3 of members can ensure a hearing on a bill unless a majority of members object;

2. The key to a functioning legislature is having active and engaged members who can participate fully in the legislative process and represent the interests of their constituents. The current Assembly rules do not give enough of a voice to individual Assemblymembers. The Assembly rules should be reformed to encourage greater participation by all legislators by:

a. providing the opportunity for a simple majority of members to bring any bill to the floor for consideration and a vote, regardless of leadership objections;

b. subjecting all amendments to bills under consideration by the full chamber to a vote;

c. requiring that all bills receive consideration by the full chamber within 30 days after being voted out of committee.

3. Foster equity and comity through the fair allocation of resources between the majority and minority conferences by ensuring that funding for central staff is proportionate to a conference’s size and tightening rules prohibiting the use of resources for political purposes. All members should receive equal funding for operating and staff budgets, regardless of party or seniority.

4. Increase transparency of legislative deliberations by webcasting all of the Assembly’s legislative proceedings, making access to information on the Legislative Retrieval Service free, using electronic and web-based communications to provide the public with adequate advance notice of meetings, hearings and meeting agendas, and following through with the creation of the State Government Public Affairs Channel (often referred to as “NYSPAN”). Committee meeting minutes, fiscal notes, voting records, debate transcripts, archived video and other products of the legislative process should all be available on the internet within a reasonable amount of time after their creation.

Ethics Reform

It should be clear that it is time for the State to seriously engage in a comprehensive reform of its ethics laws. Most importantly, this includes: overhauling legislative ethics oversight; full disclosure of outside business clients for all lawmakers; stricter oversight of lobbyists; and, comprehensive changes to the campaign finance system including the closing of the LLC loophole, lower contributions limits, strict controls over “personal use” of campaign contributions, and creation of a voluntary system of public financing of elections. While most of these will require the involvement of the Senate and the Governor, the Assembly on its own can unilaterally make important changes by, for example, enacting more stringent requirements around the disclosure of outside income.

Electing a new Speaker presents a tremendous opportunity to send a signal to New Yorkers about your commitment to making the Assembly a more representative, deliberative, accountable, transparent and efficient legislative body. We hope that you will urge all Speaker candidates to adopt the reform proposals listed in this letter and hold them accountable for implementing these reforms. We welcome the opportunity to discuss these proposals with you in greater detail.

Sincerely,

Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice

Dick Dadey, Executive Director, Citizens Union

Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause New York

Sally Robinson, President, League of Women Voters of New York State

Blair Horner, Legislative Director, NYPIRG

John Kaehny, Executive Director, Reinvent Albany

Fake Shelly Is Reinvent Albany’s Aaron Naparstek

Aaron Naparstek

“It’s been a great honor to serve as Fake Speaker these past five years. I will not hinder the process of selecting a new Fake Speaker.”

Reinvent Albany founding board member Aaron Naparstek was unveiled as Fake Sheldon Silver in a New Yorker magazine Talk of the Town piece today. Naparstek’s @ShellySilver parody account on Twitter is closely followed by Albany insiders, who have often speculated that the author is a legislative staffer or lobbyist. (Aaron is neither.)

Naparstek launched the parody account in March 2010, during the start up of Reinvent Albany.

“It’s been a great honor to serve as Fake Speaker these past five years,” Naparstek told Reinvent Albany. “I have the deepest respect for the institution of Parody State Assembly and I will not hinder the process of selecting a new Fake Speaker.”

Naparstek, who also founded the influential Streetsblog.org, will remain on Reinvent Albany’s board where he will continue pushing for reforms like an end to outside income for state legislators, restrictions on the use of campaign contributions for personal use, and closing loopholes which foster corruption by allowing people who do business with the state to make enormous campaign contributions.

Fake Carl Heastie declined to comment.

 

 

NY Times Editorial Lists Three Albany Reforms

The challenge for Albany reformers is that the most important reforms are almost impossible to win because they are perceived by the powers that be as an existential threat. In the last five years,  major pushes for the creation of a statewide small donor matching program like New York City’s and for a less politicized redistricting process have failed.

In the aftermath of Sheldon Silver’s arrest, reform groups and editorial boards are trying to determine what changes to the law and legislative rules are both winnable and will actually help create more honest government. This weekend, the Times editorial board weighed in with their three favorite fixes:

1. Cap Outside Income at 15% of Legislative Salary, per congress.
2. Close the “LLC” Loophole, which allows an individual to make an essentially unlimited number of political contributions via the Limited Liability Companies they control — a common tactic of real estate moguls.
Create Strong Ethics Police: Currently, Albany has three very weak ethics and campaign finance enforcement agencies: Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Legislative Ethics Commission, and the enforcement arm of the Board of Elections. In contrast, New York City has a strong Campaign Finance Board and a strong Department of Investigation.

We like all of the Time’s fixes and hope to win at least one of the three in the next few months. However, as the Time’s notes, it will take these and more to really drain Albany’s Caldron of Corruption.”