They Like Transparency, Until They Don’t (NY Times editorial)


Today’s NY Times editorial on New York City’s deteriorating compliance with the state Freedom of Information Law quotes Reinvent Albany. The Times calls on Mayor Bloomberg to fulfill his commitment to open government.

November 13, 2011

The New York City public advocate, Bill de Blasio, has started an investigation into why the city fails so miserably to release even the most routine data requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Mr. de Blasio cited a request his office made last November for documentation on delays in school bus service. He is still waiting for the documents, but he recently got one of many “lovely letters” that explain how the Department of Education is still working on his request.

He is not alone in his experience or his frustration. City agencies “over time have optimized their ability to game the system or not comply at all,” says John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a group that promotes transparency in government. Too often news organizations, advocacy groups and others have had to turn to the courts to pry public information from the city.

In recent years, the New York Civil Liberties Union had to sue to get stop-and-frisk data from the police, details on the race of people shot by officers and shooting reports since 1997. Most recently, the group has filed a suit on behalf of an online columnist asking for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s calendar. The department has argued that the commissioner’s whereabouts are secret for security reasons. Civil liberties lawyers note that the president’s schedule appears daily on the White House Web site, so why not Mr. Kelly’s?

Similarly, The Times was forced to go to court to get fuller access to police data. A judge ruled early last month that the New York Police Department had improperly withheld information about pistol owners and the locations of hate crimes.

Such effort and expense to get public information is simply wrong. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has vowed to promote more open government, should tell his administrators to comply with the Freedom of Information Law quickly and thoroughly.