Too many gaps exist in ethics, lobbying and open meetings laws for local governments.
How can taxpayers have confidence in their leaders' decisions without closing such gaps?
On the eve of a new legislative session, the New York Public Interest Research Group released a report validating what news media and community activists have been saying for decades: State laws to help foster honest, open local government are lacking.
NYPIRG started looking into the operations of local governments that would most likely be affected by hydrofracking, investigating whether citizens could have confidence that those governments would make decisions publicly and with their residents' desires at heart.
While the hydrofracking issue was rendered moot with the Dec. 17 announcement that the drilling process won't be allowed in the state, the message of "Drilling Down: Local fracking decisions highlight failures in New York's municipal ethics laws" remains relevant.
NYPIRG reported it found:
The state's ethics laws fail to ensure decisions by local municipalities are free of conflicts of interest.
The state's lobbying law contains a gaping secrecy loophole: Exempting reporting for municipalities with fewer than 50,000 residents.
The state's open meetings law contains gaps that can be used to deprive the public of timely notice of agenda items and access to pertinent documents.
Some small local governments lack the financial resources, infrastructure, expertise and personnel to substantially comply with the state's open government laws.
Capital Region residents don't need the nearly 50 pages of examples from NYPIRG's report to appreciate the findings. They have ample arguments right here for greater openness and accountability, from the questionable relationship between developer Bruce Tanski in Halfmoon and that community's power brokers to the East Greenbush Town Board's secretive deliberations on a proposed casino.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli surely appreciate the need, too. The Joint Task Force on Public Integrity they formed in 2011 has prosecuted about 50 people in a range of public positions.
Overhauling the state's ethics law for municipalities to include strong conflict of interest provisions and more training.
Applying the same reporting standards on lobbying in municipalities with fewer than 50,000 residents as required in larger ones.
Strengthening the open meetings law to improve public participation and confidence in local government decisions.
Using measures like videotaping, archiving and webcasting meetings to bring local government transparency into the 21st century.
As the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the agenda for the 2015 session, these are surely worthwhile improvements to consider. While lawmakers and the governor have the state's own ethical loopholes to close as well, that hardly disqualifies them from making sure that local governments get it right.