We write concerning a serious problem with our democracy here in New York; systemic governmental obstruction of the public’s right to know. By failing to make documents and other information easily accessible on line, by foot-dragging in fulfilling Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, and by openly violating legal procedures — knowing citizens seldom have the where-with-all to sue — governments are hampering the flow of information necessary to make Democracy work.
Some examples in Colonie: Albany County Public Defender Stephen Herrick has had to sue the Town of Colonie in order to shake loose over two years of trial transcripts. The Colonie court clerk has refused Herrick’s FOIL requests for these public documents. Most criminal defendants could not afford the cost of transcribing a proceeding; the transcripts have been filed and should be made available through FOIL. This denial is clearly punitive.
SAVE Colonie: A Partnership for Planning, a four-year-old good government group in Colonie, has been seeking documentation of cost estimates, requests for proposals, public bidding results, as well as invoices and payments made for construction of the recently completed controversial “Starlite Connector Road” in Latham. A public project, reportedly more than $6 million of public money spent, millions in Industrial Development Agency tax benefits given, a road constructed, but no information made available yet to taxpayers. Why not?
Just sue us. Sadly, that has been the refrain we citizens have heard from our town attorney and other administration officials. During the public comment period at the Colonie Town Board meeting on June 13, an Omega Drive resident seeking enforcement of construction conditions the town had imposed upon a major development in her neighborhood, was told by the town attorney that her remedy was to sue the town.
There are other examples of this attitude in Colonie’s Town Board transcripts. Regarding the same development, the West Latham Neighborhood Association filed a FOIL request several weeks before the Planning Board’s hearing on final approval. In response to their follow up email, the town said the documents would be available the Friday before the Tuesday Planning Board hearing. However, on Thursday, the request was denied. After the neighborhood group threatened to take the town to court, the town relented and, only hours before the public hearing, made the FOILed documents available. Too late to be of use?
Colonie has been a hotbed of development for the past 10 years. Neighborhoods are startled and residents dismayed when they find out that in three days a major project proposed behind their homes will be heard by the Planning Board. We at SAVE Colonie have been asking the town to maintain a listing of project applications received, so people have a bit of advance warning. These projects have potential to impact quality of life, property values, and school and property taxes. Surely we deserve more than a three-day notice.
Two years ago, just prior to the previous town supervisor race, the town responded by instituting an on-line listing of “Applications Received.” Unaccountably, the last entry was Oct. 9, 2018, more than a year ago. Similarly, documents discussed at Planning Board meetings, such as town experts’ reports, are not made available to residents either before or at these meetings, in violation of state Open Meetings Law. Nor have project documents been visible to meeting attendees, despite three years of SAVE Colonie cajoling and imploring.
There is really no excuse for treating Colonie residents this way.
The foregoing are just a few examples from my community of the disclosure issues citizens face in participating in democracy here. We should all hope our legislators and our local officials address the changes we need to make things better for our democracy and our people.
Isn’t that their job?
for SAVE Colonie: A Partnership for Planning