Time to reform the state's open government committee

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this was sent to Gov. Kathy Hochul from Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, a non-partisan group pushing for better transparency at both the local and state levels of government.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo came into office promising the most transparent administration in history. Without question, Cuomo failed miserably in achieving his transparency goal. Cuomo ruled by fear and intimidation behind closed doors.

In order for you to achieve a new era of transparency, you must rid yourself of appointees selected through Cuomo’s flawed way of doing public business. Several Cuomo appointees have recently resigned from their positions. The same house cleaning needs to occur at the Committee on Open Government.

It should not be forgotten how Shoshanah Bewlay was selected as the executive director of the Committee on Open Government — through a closed-door process that kept the public and members of the committee in the dark.

Prior to being selected as executive director, Bewlay — as an attorney and the Freedom of Information Law appeals officer for the state’s information technology services office — ruled against the Albany Times Union newspaper on all 10 of the FOIL appeals she decided.

As executive director, Bewlay refused to render an opinion regarding Cuomo not releasing information for his $5 million book deal requested through a FOIL. The reason given by Bewlay was that courts have not ruled on the issue. The committee has rendered many opinions on issues that courts have not ruled on, but Bewlay — as a Cuomo appointee — chose to dodge Cuomo’s denial of a FOIL request.

Also troubling is that Bewlay and the state employees on the committee do not support allowing the public to speak at Committee on Open Government meetings. The fact that public participation at committee meetings is even a debate is amazing. The committee should serve as a model for other public bodies to follow.

It is hard to believe that Bewlay was the best person available to serve as the executive director of the Committee on Open Government. The process used to hire Bewlay was flawed, and you should direct the undertaking of a new search for the executive director position, done in a transparent way, and not through the typical Cuomo closed-door process.

The structure of the Committee on Open Government is outdated, and in need of reform. The committee’s board consists of 11 members as follows:

• Lieutenant governor or their delegate
• Secretary of state or their delegate
• General services commissioner or their delegate
• Budget director or their delegate
• Five appointments by the governor — two of whom have been representatives of the news media, one of whom shall be a representative of local government who is serving as an elected official
• One appointment by the senate majority leader
• One appointment by the Assembly Speaker

Nine of the 11 positions on the committee are controlled by the governor. Other statewide officials — such as the state comptroller and the attorney general — do not have any appointments.

The wrong people are at the table, and as such, the number of governor appointments and state employees should be reduced and replaced with appointments by the comptroller, attorney general, media, Association of Town Clerks, Association of Counties, and open government advocacy groups.

The committee also should be empowered to designate a board chair and to hire an executive director so that it can operate independently and not be beholden to the governor.

The state’s lack of commitment to open government is clear when the resources provided to the committee is compared to other organizations. The committee has a staff of three employees compared to 92 at the inspector general’s office, 50 at the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, and 11 with the authorities budget office.

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Paul W. Wolf,