Bill to amend N.Y. FOI law draws criticism
By The Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. The Pataki administration wants to limit the public's access to information that state officials consider to be of potential use to terrorists.
But public interest groups said May 7 the wording of a bill to do that is too vague, potentially giving government agencies a loophole to broadly restrict the release of information as they see fit.
"We keep talking about protecting our democracy after Sept. 11," said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause-New York. "We don't want to cut back on our democracy in the guise of protecting it."
The proposed one-sentence addition to the state's Freedom of Information Law would restrict any material "obtained or compiled in monitoring, investigating or preparing for suspected or potential terrorist activity."
The Senate's Committee on Investigations, Taxation and Government Operations voted 8-3 May 7 to send the bill, S6806, to the Senate floor. There have been no public hearings on the measure.
"We have to recognize we're at a time of war, fighting a new enemy," said Westchester County Republican Sen. Nicholas Spano, the bill's sponsor and committee chairman. "We have to make sure we have the adequate resources to engage this enemy."
Spano said Gov. George Pataki requested the bill, at the strong recommendation of state Director of Security James Kallstrom.
But when asked May 7 about the measure, Pataki said, "I'm not familiar with it."
Pataki's spokesman, Joseph Conway, said later the bill was drawn up "in coordination" with Kallstrom's office.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said he believes the bill is unnecessary. FOIL already allows government agencies to withhold information that could jeopardize residents' safety, he said.
Freeman has sent his opinion to the governor's office, he said.
"They're trying to solve a problem that does not exist," said Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, who voted against the bill at the May 7 committee meeting. "I think this is way too broad."
Kallstrom said the law needs to address terrorism specifically, so private industries would be more willing to share sensitive information with his office. For example, he said, a power company won't reveal its most vulnerable spot where a bomb would do the most damage unless it's guaranteed that the information will not become public.
"I believe in freedom of information, just not to the extent it advantages terrorists," Kallstrom said. "Maybe [the bill] could be drafted with more specificity, but I think it's pretty common-sensical."
Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters in New York, said such "common-sense" discretion should not be left to the government.
"I fear it's a blatant political attempt to keep the public from gaining access to the functions of their government," she said. Even if intentions are good, she said, "they might inadvertently undermine democracy in the state of New York."
Agencies could use the vague language to seal everything from highway construction plans to voter registration records, said Diane Kennedy, president of the state Newspaper Publishers Association.
"Government's natural reaction is never to disclose information that's embarrassing," said Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group.
For example, Horner said, if an investigation into hospitals' ability to respond to smallpox reveals a shoddy record on patient care, the latter could be kept quiet under the guise of the war on terrorism.
"There's concern this administration is headed to a policy of more secrecy rather than more open government," Horner said. "This is just another step down that road."
In January, Kallstrom asked all state agencies to purge their Web sites of "sensitive information." Horner said a FOIL request his group filed to find out just what information was deleted has been denied by the Pataki administration.
Spano said he's not opposed to changing the bill's wording. But he didn't want to take the time to do it. He wanted to send it to the Senate floor immediately to spur the Assembly's interest, Spano said.
The bill does not yet have a sponsor in the Assembly.
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