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Monday, March 14, 2011

Sunshine Week at BxNN: Your Right to Know

The Bronx News Network is a proud supporter and participant in Sunshine Week, an initiative started by journalists that seeks to shed light -- sun light, if you will -- on the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Here's the official tagline: "Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger."

In other words, open government equals more accountable government and a more-informed public citizenry.

As journalists, it is our goal to shed light on how the government works (or isn't working) for our communities. Oftentimes, as you might imagine, we run into resistance while working on this quest. Some agencies and elected officials are better than others. Many agencies put loads of information on their websites. But many remain stubborn oysters, reluctant to open up without some significant prying. This is a problem. How can we hold government accountable, if we don't even know what it's doing?

There are ways to finesse this problem and the best journalists acquire the necessary information through various tricks of the trade. The law is also on our side. And when I say "our," I mean journalists as well as the general public. Generally speaking, you have a right to know what the government you pay for (with taxes) is up to. New York State actually has a pretty robust Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), although it doesn't work 100 percent of the time.

Robert Freeman heads the state's Committee on Open Government. I'll let him explain our rights:

Check out the committee's official website for information. We'll post more videos from Freeman throughout the week.

We will also recount and examine some of our hardest cases, our most stubborn oysters. Here's a quick story to start off the conversation.

Two summers ago, Community Board 7, along with former Councilwoman Maria Baez, was meeting with the Related Companies and the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC) about the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory. Related had recently been selected by the city to do the redevelopment work and the Board wanted to open up a dialogue about how best to use the space and how the community would benefit.

Ex-CB7 Chairman Greg Faulkner told me about the meeting and I showed up, somewhat confident in my right to attend the meeting. Reps from the mayor's office and EDC immediately started looking at me weird and holding side whispery conversations, several times calling district manager Fernando Tirado into a side room to discuss what was becoming an increasingly awkward situation.

Baez looked terrified. "What is he doing here?" she asked an aide, loud enough for me to hear.

Tirado told me they were concerned my presence would have an impact on the proceedings and that I might be asked to leave. He would get back to me in a minute. I immediately called Freeman's office and told them I needed to know if I had a right to be at the meeting even if they asked me to leave. Freeman quickly got on the phone and asked for more details.

In the end, he told me I technically didn't have a right to be there because it wasn't a scheduled meeting of the full community board or any other public body. That was it. Except for the fact that I left my coat and backpack in the meeting room. Awk-ward. All eyes on me, I gathered up my stuff, wished everyone a happy meeting and left, my face probably a deep scarlet red. Apparently, I didn't miss much, but the lines between public information and private (and ultimately unsuccessful) negotiations were drawn. 

I tell this story for two reasons. One, it's kind of funny and makes you wonder: why they didn't want the media (or any other member of the public) to overhear their discussions, which involved a publicly-held property and millions in tax-payer subsidies. And two, if you're ever in doubt about your right to know something or be a part of something government-related, call Bob Freeman. The man is great at his job and is always at your disposal.

If we convey nothing else this week besides the value of Bob Freeman, then we've done our job. Look for more Sunshine Week info throughout the week.


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