There was a portion of tonight's City Council meeting where I damn near started pulling out my increasingly graying hair. I almost posted a message on my Facebook page along the lines of, "I started covering city governments 20 years ago, and there comes a time in way-too-many council meetings where I wonder why we even bother to vote."
Tonight's completely meaningless topic: Whether to give candidates for council seats in the November election copies of complete council agendas prior to council meetings.
Prior to each meeting, the City Council is given a stack of papers containing background material on the items under consideration. The agenda packet contains memos of staff opinion, letters from concerned citizens, spreadsheets, historical records and other documents that might be germaine to a particular agenda item.
Except for material related to closed session discussions, none of it is particularly precious.
But to hear Frank Ferrando and Rose Mary Christian go on and on about it tonight, you would think these documents were as sacred as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We heard about what an honor and privilege it is to get the background documents once elected (but not before), and if the council challengers want to be fully informed, all they need to do was show up at the meetings (which, disappointingly, tonight, none of the three challengers -- Phil Ricci, Sara Jane Burk-Balbi and Julie Wallace -- were bothered to attend).
From the Christian and Ferrando perspective, even showing up shouldn't entitle people to the sacred documents. It should be enough just to come and listen to fully understand the issues.
Well, yes, some discussions can be enlightening just from the questions and statements of council members and staff, but having sat through numerous government agency meetings, I can tell you -- it's quite easy to misunderstand or misconstrue the conversation without adequate written background material -- and ideally, material you've read in advance of the meeting. I'm sometimes frustrated by how skimpy the background material actually is with some local public agencies.
But none of the current council members were granted the esteemed privilege of document access prior to election, so why should the new challenges be bestowed such a time-honored trust?
Here's a news flash: The background material is public record.
Here's the very eloquent preamble to the New York's public records' law:
Legislative declaration. The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.
As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible.
The people's right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature therefore declares that government is the public's business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article (emphasis added, and notice the use of the phrase "leading to").
Once a government agency creates a document that is not otherwise exempt under provisions of FOIL, it becomes public record. It matters not whether it's been distributed to the City Council, the media or the clerk across the hall, or never even leaves the desk of its writer -- unless exempted under specific provisions of FOIL, it is public record. Period.
There was some concern tonight about the costs of creating copies of the background material for candidates, and the council finally decided on a 5-4 vote to make available only four additional copies for any member of the public (not just candidates) to walk into the clerk's office and obtain. But there is a simple solution to the cost issue: PDF.
The obvious course of action for the city to take -- the needs of some council members to protect their special privileges aside -- is for the city clerk to upload a copy of each agenda and all background material to the city's Web site at the same time it is made available for the council.
This would be most in keeping with the principles of a free and open government.
Those voting against greater government transparency, even at the minimal level eventually passed tonight: Marianne Clattenburg, Kathy Briggs, Ferrando and Christian.