Thats why, in a democracy, it is crucial that the electorate be fully informed about the decisions of its governing bodies, and the information and deliberations on which those decisions are based. Otherwise our votes are a sham. Sunshine Week, which runs from March 12 through March 18, is a reminder of our right to open government and our obligation to exercise that right.
The importance of free access to such information has become especially evident recently on a national level, where what is generally agreed to be the most secretive administration in history has sought to hide activities such as eavesdropping on American citizens without a warrant. But freedom of information is just as important on a local level. The meetings of our town, planning and school boards are also subject to freedom of information laws. It is important that we understand what our rights are in terms of staying informed about these meetings and any information related to the government decisions that most intimately affect our quality of life.
We have two main tools that give us access to the knowledge we need in order to properly choose and control our government. The first is laws guaranteeing us access to documents related to public business. The second is laws guaranteeing that any meetings at which government discusses public business are open to the public. To celebrate Sunshine Week, we are providing our readers with the information they need to use these tools. The language here is from New York law, but Pennsylvanias laws are similar.
Citizens have a right to get copies of any information kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for an agency or the State legislature, in any physical form. Examples include minutes, environmental quality review declarations, and records of how individual members vote in agency proceedings. There are nine restrictions, including documents that would invade someone elses personal privacy, endanger someones life, reveal a trade secret, or interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings. For a full list, see page 4 of www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/Right_to_know.html.
To obtain a record, you should make your request in writing. Within five business days of receipt of your request, the agency in question must either make the record available, deny access in writing and give reasons for the denial, or furnish a written acknowledgement of receipt of the request and a statement of the approximate date when the request will be granted or denied. There may be a charge for copies, up to 25 cents per photocopy.
If access is denied, you may appeal to the head of the agency or the person designated to hear appeals by that head. That appeal should occur within 30 days of the denial, and the agency must respond to you within 10 business days. Copies of the appeal and determinations related to it are sent to the Committee on Open Government, which may intercede on your behalf. That committee, which will also provide helpful information, can be reached at 518/474-2518. (Pennsylvania does not have a similar body, but information may be found online at www.lgc.state.pa.us/deskbook03/Issues01.pdf.).
If your request is still denied, it is possible to seek judicial review. If the court finds in the plaintiffs favor, it may, but does not have to, award the plaintiff attorneys fees.
Any time a quorum of a public body gathers for the purpose of discussing public business, the meeting must be open to the public. If a meeting is scheduled at least a week in advance, notice must be given to the public and news media no less than 72 hours prior to the meeting. If the meeting is scheduled less than a week in advance, notice must be given at a reasonable time prior to the meeting.
The law provides for closed or executive sessions, but only under strictly prescribed circumstances. There are eight subjects that may be discussed behind closed doors, including matters that could imperil public safety if disclosed and personal data relating to a particular individual or corporation, especially personnel matters. For a full list, see page 14 of www.dos.state.ny.us/coog/Right_to_know.html.
In addition, the body that wishes to hold a closed session must, in proposing that session, disclose in general what it will be about. If the topic of the closed session does not match any of the eight prescribed subjects, then the closed session is illicit. Lawsuits can be brought in such a case, and a court has the power to nullify any action taken by a public body in such a session. Again, the court may, but does not have to, award the plaintiff attorneys fees.
The right to be present at meetings is not a green light to harass or misbehave. In fact, the right to speak at a meeting is not guaranteed by law, only the right to listen. Knowing and exercising your rights to open government is the first step to holding your government to account, but we all must be accountable for our own behavior as well. The result should be a government that is not only more responsive but more effective in serving the people.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The River Reporter welcomes letters
on all subjects from its readers. They must be signed and include
the correspondent's phone number. The correspondent's name and
town will appear at the bottom of each letter; titles
and affiliations will not, unless the correspondent is writing
on behalf of a group.
Letters are printed at the discretion of the editor.
It is requested they be limited to 300 words; correspondents may
be asked to cut longer letters. Deadline is 1:00 p.m. on Monday.
Thank you for your time and your effort in coming to Fallsburg High School this morning. Your dedication to students and to your work is remarkable. I laud you for your energy. I know that you went more than the extra mile to drive over here and to be inspiring to our young people after the night and early morning that you put in.
I trust that you will get some sleep soon.
Larry Schafman, Director of Special Programs
Fallsburg Central School District
Globalization taking over our school?
To the editor:
Alan Derry, Sullivan West Superintendent, has mentioned on several occasions that the school district is undertaking a study of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program as a possible addition to the curriculum of Sullivan West. Since Mr. Derry has said he will not be officially describing the IB program until the conclusion of a yearlong study by certain (as yet unidentified) teachers of the district, I have sought out information on my own.