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Transparency in Public Agencies

June 22nd, 2006 · No Comments · News

Government must fulfill its responsibility to keep the public informed 1/14/07

The City of Plattsburgh, through the assistance of William Provost, Ward 6 Councilor, will now be publishing the Minutes of the Meeting from each of the city council meetings on the City of Plattsburgh website. 6/23/06

Sure, an insane notion, especially in New York. If I wasn’t Chinese, I’d say bureaucracies were invented by government workers and politicians in New York. A recent “boil water” problem at the Beekmantown Rest Area prompted me to do a little digging as to how and why this was discovered. This was easy. A call to Dept of Transportation revealed that samples were indeed collected by their employees as mandated by the Clinton County Department of Health who then were responsible for responding to the results. I guess “boil water” issues have more public notification rules; I was quickly connected to the Environmental Health Sanitarian in charge of the case. I was provided with frank responses to my specific questions which satisfied my need for information. I was not required to file a Freedom of Information Law Request to get this information. I can’t leave well enough alone…

In this day and age of computerized data collection and archiving, it is truly amazing that more transparency in governmental activities and affairs is not being demanded by the citizenry. In Los Angeles, restaurants are required to display their most current health inspection rating – typically A, B, or C. Most places proudly have their A or B rating adjacent to their main entrance. Not many people see the “C’s” for good reason.

Rather than word-of-mouth or innuendo, wouldn’t it be nice if the facts spoke for themselves? Would it be possible to access the health safety inspection records for our area?

Here is the official policy in this regard:

Freedom of Information and Access to Department of Health Records

Now, on the surface, this seems to be pretty clear and simple. Note the following:

“The fee for transferring materials (if available electronically) to a magnetic tape cartridge or CD-ROM is $60.00 per cartridge or CD-ROM. A blank cartridge or CD-ROM must be supplied with the request.”

This seems to be an onerous burden. What universe are the authors of this in?

My first call to the Clinton County Dept of Health was met with an experienced receptionist/gatekeeper. When asked if inspection records were available electronically, she replied “that’s on the computer and that’s private”. FOIL specifically includes electronic records and data as subject to request by the public. When I pointed this fact out, she then fell back on “nobody here is able to retrieve the records from the computer”. Continued questioning got me transferred to a supervisor or dept head “John”. Now I’m not only annoying them, I’m taking up valuable administration time. This was apparent in the tone and bureaucratic wall I felt immediately. In short, I was welcome to come in and search through their paper files for what I needed. Copies would be available at the standard rate. Sorry, I specifically require the electronic records. After expending his last brick, he gave me the number of the “only person I can think of” who could help me. “Kristen” answers the phone “Hello?” (surprised that anyone actually called her on what seemed to be a direct line). Apparently the Dept of Health IT person is not pleased to have to describe the file system and what data it currently records. She denied any ability to assist me and gave me another number. I was finally moved far enough up the chain to someone who likely never answers his phone. A subsequent call to the Records Office resulted in a recommendation to contact the Clinton County Dept of Health directly.

It was quite obvious that my methodology for requesting information about what information I could request and in what form was not very effective. Google.

The Society of Professional Journalists provided me with an interesting tool. Likewise, the NYS Committee on Open Government was a useful resource. Turns out it is a simple matter to find out what records each state agency maintains. Each state agency is required by law to maintain a “subject matter index” which is maintained by a designated “Records Access Officer”. Uh, we’ll see about that. Why not try a few other places around town?

Clinton County Government – The gatekeeper/receptionist/clerk had no idea what a “subject matter index” was. She claimed that my only recourse was the legislature. When asked about who the “Records Access Officer” was for the county, she indicated that likely the Town Clerk would be it. I was transferred. Mr. John Zurlo. North Country, no BS, no bureaucratic language, no subject matter index. But, he was 100% forthright and helpful. The county records are open to me anytime I want and “stop in and say hello when you’re here.”

Plattsburgh State University of New York – University Police – How about campus crime? Is a police blotter available? Why sure, a weekly summary is posted online in two places. Could I get a daily report? If I wanted to, I could come in and see the report daily anytime.

Plattsburgh City Police – The local press has upgraded their online site to now include obituaries and police log. Now, maybe a new Plattsburgh community oriented website could use such content too? Hmmm. Seems the PD are not well equipped to respond to such a query. Police are naturally suspicious, but they seemed to truly want to help. The press calls in everyday to get the juiciest stuff which is verbally relayed. I offered to put up a website for the PD free of charge so they could publish the same, but there was no response. LAPD now has a blog, pretty cool. What a fantastic tool to help the PD communicate with the public. I guess a daily email of all the activity in my inbox, or in my wildest dream a newsfeed, is still too much to ask.

The boy and I decided to pay a visit to the Dept of Health. It’s great when you walk into a room and everyone shuts up, shuffles papers and goes back to work. My first question, “Would you have a current copy of your department’s subject matter index?” Answer, “What’s that? We’ve never heard of such a thing.” Question: “Who is the designated Records Access Officer for this department?” Answer: “We have many different units and programs.” Question: “How about the Environmental Health Unit?” Answer, “As far as we know there is no Record Access Officer, we’ve never heard of that before.” When I pointed out that state law required the designation of such a person within each agency and the availability of a subject matter index, things became a bit tense. I was told to call back or return at an undetermined future date to ‘check’ if a list was prepared and ready. At the same time, I was told that “it might take a while” and “it might not be possible to even do it”. Declining a third request for my name, I promised I would call back soon to check their progress.

If all of these agencies were publishing their activities and records, then this whole exercise would be unnecessary. Check out NYC and restaurant inspection records. Seems to me that this is free marketing for clean restaurants and a great public service.

Check back for more on this.


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