right to know: NYPIRGs Blair Horner. Photo
by Joe Putrock
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
group digs in against Besicorp’s proposed newspaper-recycling/cogeneration
plant in Rensselaer
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.
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.
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.
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
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
a new course: Albany Public Library.Photo
by Joe Putrock
for the Books
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’ ”