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Your right to know: NYPIRG’s Blair Horner. Photo by Joe Putrock

Keeping Secrets

Critics say governor’s proposal to restrict FOIL as an antiterror measure is merely an attempt to keep information out of the hands of the public

When the announcement came last Monday that Gov. George Pataki was pushing for a law to restrict the public’s access to government records, alarm bells immediately went off for many government-watchdog groups.

“This administration has a long history of not disclosing information to the public and operating in secrecy,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “I think that this is part of that pattern. It doesn’t appear that we need this bill.”

The proposal would allow state officials to withhold any documents that “are obtained or compiled in monitoring, investigating or preparing for suspect or potential terrorist activity.” It would put the most extensive restrictions on New York’s Public Officer’s Law, Article 6, also known as the Freedom of Information Law, since it was first enacted in the state 24 years ago.

The bill was gaining momentum last week in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it passed, 8 to 3, out of the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee. It now sits on the Senate floor awaiting a vote. But in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, the proposal seems to be dead.

“We believe the existing law has all the protections needed for safeguarding the public’s health and safety,” said Assemblywoman RoAnn Destino (D-Oneida), who chairs the Government Operations Committee.

Caroline Quartararo, spokeswoman for the governor, said that the law would help prevent New Yorkers from future terrorist attacks because it would make it more difficult for the public to have access to sensitive government records that could end up in the wrong hands. For example, certain information on nuclear facilities, power plants, bridges and tunnels would not be available to the general public.

As it stands now, Quartararo said, many people in the private sector are not comfortable releasing pertinent information with the way that the current laws are structured. For example, she said, power companies are reluctant to give the state information about power grids for fear that a terrorist could obtain it.

“We don’t want terrorists to know where they can place bombs and take out a whole power plant,” said Quartararo. “We need to keep people in the state of New York safe.”

But many critics of the bill charge that the existing Freedom of Information Law already allows the government to suppress such information. Further, they contend that the proposed bill is far too broad, giving the government too much censorship power over what information is attainable to the public.

“Utility companies not willing to disclose information about power plants to help fight terrorism? Shame on them!” said Horner. “I have heard that argument before, and I don’t buy it.”

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said that the current Freedom of Information Law already has a “life or safety” provision that allows the government to withhold information when disclosure would endanger the safety of any person.

“As I view the law, and based on judicial decisions, it appears that government agencies have the ability to deny access when disclosure would cause harm,” said Freeman.

He adds that the language in the proposed law is so broad that even a news article might fall within the exception.

“Potentially,” Freeman adds, “governmental agencies would have the ability to withhold any number of records that historically have been public and which in so many instances would be absolutely innocuous if disclosed.”

But Quartararo said that the existing “life or safety” exemption is subject to judicial review, and the state doesn’t want to leave that kind of decision in the hands of the courts.

“The office of public safety can’t do its job if we can’t get critical information about the state’s water supply, telecommunication infrastructure, nuclear plants and power grids,” said Quartararo.

Horner also questioned the bill’s broad definition of terrorism. He said that since the bill talks about compiling information for suspected terrorist activities but never defines terrorism, it could mean that information about issues that the public legitimately should have access to could be defined as off-limits.

For example, he said, if the state were to do an investigation on hospitals to see if they are prepared to handle a smallpox outbreak, and in that process they found that hospitals are not prepared to deal with other diseases, such as Lyme disease, that information would not be available to the public.

“We think that the bill would blow a huge hole in the state’s Freedom of Information Law,” said Horner. “It’s a very broad net which could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences.”

—Nancy Guerin

Generating Controversy

Community group digs in against Besicorp’s proposed newspaper-recycling/cogeneration plant in Rensselaer

We think we are going to end up with a big stinkin’ power plant in the middle of the city and a big white elephant that was supposed to be a paper-recycling mill,” said Eric Daillie, chairman of the Rensselaer County Green Party.

Daillie charged last week that a proposed project by Besicorp, which wants to build a $1 billion newsprint-recycling mill and cogeneration plant in the city of Rensselaer, is going to spell disaster for the area. In fact, Daillie, who is also a member of Coalition Against Riverfront Pollution, a grassroots organization spearheading the campaign against the project, said that Besicorp is using the newspaper-recycling mill as a mediation tool to get the power plant built, knowing full well that there is no market for a newspaper-recycling mill in the area at this time.

“If they came and said, ‘We want to build a big power plant in the middle of the city that will only create 30 jobs,’ they would not have gotten anywhere,” said Daillie. “But a paper plant that saves trees and will create over 300 jobs—that’s a different story.”

Daillie contends that with the price of paper hitting an all-time low of $425 per ton, the lull in the economy, growing Internet use, and tough competition overseas, it would be difficult—if not impossible—for a newspaper-recycling mill to sustain itself in this kind of market. Further, he adds that if the plant actually does get built, he doubts that it will stay in operation—and the city of Rensselaer will be stuck with a big, useless eyesore.

“Even if they do build the plant, it may very well go bankrupt, and then what will the people of Rensselaer be stuck with?” challenged Daillie. “It will not create the jobs that it promised, and it would stop paying its taxes.”

William Seils, president of Besicorp, called the charges “outrageous.” He said that in order to go through a permitting process for a facility of this size, his company has had to spend millions of dollars on pre-application, permit applications and studies for the proposed site.

“That is a misstatement and an inaccurate charge,” said Seils. “We absolutely have a commitment to the project as it has been stated, and we have invested very heavily to do so.”

As far as the recycling plant not being able to sustain itself, Seils said that’s simply not true. He said that the market is extremely volatile and often experiences highs and lows in terms of market price. The new facility is being built as a state-of-the-art, low-cost, 100-percent recycled-newsprint plant; he said it would be one of the lowest-cost producers of newsprint in the world. And according to Seils, it will replace an older, less-efficient and less environmentally friendly facility.

But Daillie insisted that the natural-gas burning plant would produce dangerous emissions and release an odor that would be unbearable to those who live nearby. With its 25-story, 50-foot-wide stacks, he said, it will likely chase any positive waterfront use projects away from Rensselaer and Albany.

Besicorp, based in Kingston, N.Y., began its pre-application process with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in December 2001. The company, which is in partnership with Empire State Newsprint, had been reviewing various sites on which to place its facility since April 2000. Originally, the corporation had wanted to construct the plant in Kingston and then in Saugerties, but due to pressure from environmental groups, it was turned away from both sites.

Peter Constantakes, spokesman for the DEC, said that it is too early in the application process for his organization to say whether or not the project would pose any environmental concerns. But, if it does, he said, it will come out in the review.

—N.G.

Chartering a new course: Albany Public Library.Photo by Joe Putrock

One for the Books

Albany voters face two major decisions: Whether to pass the school budget, and whether to free the Albany Public Library from its dependence on the city

On Tuesday, May 21, Albany voters will head to the polls to decide whether or not to accept a new school budget for the 2002-2003 school year. But residents also will vote on another proposal that seeks to recharter the Albany Public Library from an association to a school- district public library.

“The future of the city library as a modern, effective system at the center of city life is at stake,” said Jeffery Cannell, director of Albany Public Library. “Rechartering will allow us to do more than ever before.”

Presently, the public library is chartered as an association holding a contract with the city of Albany to provide library services. Under this system, the mayor of Albany appoints the library’s board members, and the budget is discussed and voted on in private. By making the switch to become a school-district library, the public would vote on the library’s budget as well as elect its board of trustees. The school district, rather than the city, would act as its tax collector.

“The library is the cornerstone of democracy, and so it should be governed democratically,” said Cannell. “If the library becomes a public-district library, this would mean that the public would have direct input into running it.”

Cannell said that the proposal also calls for a $4 million tax levy, and it would allow the public to elect nine members to the library’s board of trustees. Currently, library board members are appointed by the mayor.

Pat Mallon, a library development specialist for the New York State Library, said that she sees this as a good route for any library to take.

“In general,” said Mallon, “the education department thinks it is a better move for a library to become a special district, because usually the level of support is better, the support is more stable and people get to vote on the trustees. That usually results in much more accountable service on the part of the library.”

New York state Education Law allows libraries to become “school libraries” by putting a library proposition before voters. If the proposition is passed, the law requires the school district to collect the library’s taxes and run its budget vote. However, the library would remain a separate entity from the school district.

Though many say this will be a good thing for the library, some school district officials in Albany are worried that the timing of the library plan could jeopardize the school district’s chance of getting its own $8 million tax levy passed next week when voters head to the polls.

Lonnie Palmer, superintendent of the Albany City School District, fears that people will lump together the $4 million library proposal with the district’s $8 million budget request, leaving people with the impression that the school tax has increased by an additional $4 million. It is imperative, said Palmer, that everyone know that the library’s budget proposal is a separate vote and that the school district had no choice but to put it on the ballot this year.

“We are supporters of the library. . . . We think that it is a good thing for the city to have a strong public-library system,” said Palmer. “But we are concerned that, despite our best efforts to inform the public, there may be folks who won’t understand what is going on until they get their school tax bill in September. They will open it up and say ‘Gee, I thought my school taxes were only going to go up $100 and they have gone up $200.’ ”

—N.G.


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