A bill heading to Governor Andrew Cuomo's desk in December aims to strengthen the state's Freedom of Information Law and make it easier to take the government to court when access to records is denied. This, in turn, could make it easier to shine a spotlight on government.
"The idea behind this legislation is not to sting a government agency. The idea is to encourage compliance," said Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert Freeman.
If approved, the bill would make it easier for plaintiffs to have their attorneys fees paid by a government agency when they are wrongly denied records under the state's Freedom of Information Law.
"Often, a member of the public has no choice but either to move on, give it up or go to court. The problem is, it takes time, it takes money to go to court," Freeman said.
Currently, plaintiffs in records access cases can have their attorney costs paid by the government, but it's up to a judge in the case.
"That's OK," Freeman said. "That's a step in the right direction. But the reality is, most people are not willing to challenge the government and the court decisions are all over the map."
A previous version of the bill was vetoed last year by the governor. The bill's supporters say enough changes have made been to the legislation based on concerns raised by the governor's office at the time. That includes making it so that attorneys fees are only awarded when it was clear the public records should not have been denied.
"It's only when you have substantially prevailed and the court finds there's no reasonable basis for withholding that a court would be obliged to order attorneys fees," Freeman said.
The bill is backed by the state's major news organizations in both TV and newspapers, as well as the New York Press Association.