2009-03-20 / Columnists

Smith Speaks From Albany

Commentary From The Desk Of Senator Malcolm Smith Minority Leader New York State Senate

MALCOMN SMITH MALCOMN SMITH When Democrats reclaimed the Majority in the State Senate for the first time in 43 years this January, we immediately began restructuring the way our government works in Albany. For far too long, the Senate chamber has operated virtually without transparency or accountability, leaving the people of New York out of the process.

Along those lines, Sunshine Week, a national initiative that runs from March 15 to 21, will bring renewed focus to our disclosure laws.

The effort, led nationally by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and more locally by the New York Newspapers Association, is dedicated to promoting open government and freedom of information. We, after all, work for you; and you have a right to know about our work.

As part of Sunshine Week, we will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, March 18 on a package of bills designed to make the Senate's work and public bodies at all levels of government more open and accessible to the public than ever before.

These bills signify a renewed commitment in the Senate to reforming government and the beginning of real and necessary change.

We are already headed in this direction. As my first act as Majority Leader, I established the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform to develop a more open, accountable and inclusive legislative process. This was only the beginning of our reform efforts. This temporary committee, in conjunction with the Investigations Committee, will present legislation that speaks to the meaning of Sunshine Week by bridging the gap between lawmakers and the public. The cornerstone of these bills is a resolution representing a commitment to moving toward proactive disclosure of records of significance to the public.

This legislation will also significantly expand the definition of public bodies, and require public meetings be open to being recorded, broadcast, webcast or photographed, and goes one step further to create an enforcement mechanism when an open meeting is closed in violation of the law. Public bodies with the ability to do so must also post the time and location of all meetings on their Website ahead of time.

The impact of this legislation will allow citizens increased access - decisively, quickly, and easily - to all public bodies.

We have already made the Senate Expenditure Report available in PDF format online, but we can do better. We should make this report available as a searchable database, which would allow the public to easily navigate the document and see where their tax dollars are going in the legislature.

The impact of providing documents proactively will allow for greater efficiency and cost-savings across the Senate.

In the 21st Century, well into the new Information Age, the question should not be if government should be more accessible, it should be how we make government accessible. We begin, by enacting progressive legislation like these that shed some light on a government that has been shrouded in secrecy for decades. The process does not end here, but this is a promising and inspiring start.

I commend the organizers and founders of Sunshine Week, and their commitment to improving government across our great nation, and I look forward to working with them in the years to come. It's easy to think you're the smartest person in the room, when you are the only person there. But bringing 19 million people into the process not only makes us better legislators, it also leads to better legislation.

That's what this is all about.

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